Despite the iffy visual effects and a few larger-than-life performances, I'm a pretty big fan of the movie Jumanji, in which four people are forced to finish a game while every roll of the dice creates real-world, deadly obstacles for them to endure. While designed for children and older audiences, there's a certain caliber of suspense and terror emergent from that concept that works regardless of the intended audience, partly in anticipation of what's to come and partly in how the players adapt to their new challenges. It might be kind of unusual to compare a ‘90s kids adventure film to the likes of bloody, R-rated contemporary film like Truth or Dare, but it's hard to ignore what one gets right and where the other veers off-course. One stays within the boundaries of the rules laid out by its focal game and utilizes those restrictions to focus and elevate the suspense, while the other bends or breaks the rules at the whim of its "gamemaster" and leaves decisions made by the players as either foolish or pointless.
Released in 2017 on the Syfy network, this Truth or Dare isn't to be confused with the Blumhouse film released theatrically the year after, though there's so little differentiation between the two versions of the concept that getting them screwed up probably wouldn't impact someone's screening experience. Both are hinged on an age-old game played by youths, in which someone prompts a selected player with "Truth or Dare?" and the person asked gets to pick their poison, if you will: they either answer a question, often of a personal nature, or do something stupid at the whim of the asker. The kids at the center of this game are playing it a little differently, though, since they're staying overnight on Halloween in an old house with a dark story, and they're answering questions or accepting dares based on a random drawing of slips of paper. Dark forces have replaced their slips of paper with tough questions and violent dares, and they must do the dare before time runs out or "the dare will do them".
Out of the gate, the variation of how the game's played here raises some red flags in Truth or Dare. Instead of a question or command being tailored to an individual, the group relies on randomly drawing them from a pot, which smacks of contrivance when pertinent and personal questions -- "Have you slept with Person X" -- match up with the individual being asked for maximum discomfort. The implementation of this is necessary, of course: if the players were left to their own devices to finish the game, they'd either dish out harmless dares or, more likely, stick entirely to asking safe questions until it was deemed that they were finished with the game. Adding randomness to the equation allows for those other forces to gain control of what's being asked, but the easiness of how the supernatural entity so quickly gains control of the game starts Truth or Dare on an awkward note, one that it never fully recovers from as more gruesome, lethal prompts emerge on the papers … and on walls and windows.
What good are dares, though, if the mystical being making the demands can just change the rules and parameters of what satisfies the dare at its whim? Quickly, this stops being a game of "truth or dare" and transforms into a situation where helpless students are at the mercy of an invisible entity forcing them to do … whatever for its amusement, and the fickleness of its requirements make Truth or Dare seem like the victims have entered a futile death trap with no legitimate avenue to get out of the situation alive. The threat of being killed exists whether they complete the dare or not, either because of the dare itself or whether this nebulous gamemaster decides they haven't fulfilled their side of the bargain and just offs them anyway. A warped mind came up with the challenges posed to the players -- consuming human flesh, surviving electrocution, other nastiness involving bats, blades, and pliers -- but one that's more focused on shock value than paying attention to reasonable human thresholds.
Perhaps the most infuriating thing about Truth or Dare boils down to there being very little fun involved with watching these kids deal with against-the-clock challenges, since the horror sequences are focused on intense grit instead of grindhouse-style humor or overcoming the odds. Especially once the script reveals that there's a thematic purpose behind the kinds of torment inflicted upon each player, everything has been designed to be taken quite seriously, leaning more towards the Saw brand of "existential" torture porn involving shrug-worthy twentysomethings whose fates are difficult to care about. With that understood, the pacing, craftsmanship and committed performances from all involved -- including a solemn cameo from Nightmare on Elm Street's Heather Langenkamp as a survivor who survived the game -- do credibly express the anguish and nihilistic struggle of getting wrapped up in the game, adding human rawness to the harrowing culmination of questions and commands from the abyss. It's too bad this game's rigged.
Video and Audio:
Truth or Dare mostly takes place between the walls of a specific house, one that's deliberately dim and warm in appearance to accentuate the mood, but it does venture into the outdoors and into brighter rooms here and there. The 1.78:1-framed, 16x9-enhanced transfer looks decent enough, with adaptable skin tones and a few bursts of dark red in blood and cold blue in sterile lights to enliven the palette. Black levels are a little murky and heavy, but they also sporadically accentuate the depth and dimensionality of the image. Fine details are rarely remarkable, but do stand out in atmospheric elements such as noise on a small video screen, the light spattering of blood on a wooden surface, and the creepily scrawled font on white strips of paper. It's generally smooth and heavy, as digital photography in standard-definition can look at times, but Truth or Dare meets its demands.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track sits on about the same level as the transfer, arguably a little lower due to the extensive heftiness of the track's leaning to the front end of the stage. Very little atmospheric activity travels to the back surround channels, even at times when it really, really seems like it wants to, making the center and front renderings of the action feel cumbersome and tethered to that end. Sounds effects like the sizzling of … uh, meat, the crash of chandelier, and the sparking of wires offer some detailed higher-end strength, though the confinement to the center speakers also results in some thinness of those aspects as well. The bass channel occasionally gets a workout though -- a few chest-rattling thuds here and there -- and verbal delivery is, for the most part, natural and well-balanced against everything else.
Despite having a decent momentum, suitable performances, and a few instances of gruesome horror deaths, Truth or Dare lacks for both brainpower and schlocky enjoyment whilst being overburdened by some pretty grim, nihilistic intentions. A bunch of college kids gets together and have their game of "truth or dare" interrupted by a wrathful paranormal entity, which sounds like it could be a lot of fun, holding the potential for warped dares and salacious questions … and punishment gets involved if they don't act on their prompts. The film goes for the throat, though, getting lethal and unpleasant extremely quick as it takes on a darker, presumptuously "meaningful" tone as the spirit outright forces the students to destroy their lives, occasionally figuratively but far more often literally. It's a bummer of a film with some severe railroading of the story towards downhearted tones, and the fickleness and omnipresence of the invisible gamemaster negatively impacts both the stakes and the suspense. Skip It.