Truth or Dare review: ferociously engaging social commentary

What sort of idiot chooses “dare” in a game of “truth or dare?” This issue is addressed in director Jeff Wadlow’s outrageously entertaining new horror movie, which made me nostalgic for my adolescence – reminding me of all those times when my friends and I played truth or dare, and ended up brutally killing each other. The characters – a familiar assortment of annoyingly attractive and personality-challenged college students – are locked into a diabolically real version of the game, controlled by a demon. If they refuse to play they die a hideous, Final Destination-inspired death, like falling face-first onto the tip of a pool cue.

One brainiac reckons he figured out how to game the game: just keep choosing “truth.” Much to the group’s chagrin, however, it is discovered that they are playing a modified version, allowing a maximum of two truths in a row.

The game even messes with protagonist Olivia (Lucy Hale) by daring her to tell the truth. She has been choosing “dare” under the pretence of being unselfish; really, she has a burning secret she is determined to keep from her best friend Markie (Violett Beane). The message is clear: the game knows you. It knows your secrets and exploits personal information. As one character puts it, however clumsily: “This game is smart. Too smart.”

In the same week Truth or Dare arrives in cinemas, Mark Zuckerberg was dragged over hot coals before US Congress, grilled about privacy in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The timing could not be better. Truth or Dare presents itself as a commentary on social media from the opening credits, which divide the screen into Instagram-proportioned sections. Before the characters start playing the game – the first round taking place in an abandoned, decrepit church in Mexico (naturally) – they pose for a group selfie. One asks, “Can you tag me in that?”

The writing is sometimes stodgy, reheating waffle about demons and curses and the like. But make no mistake about it: this is ferociously sharp and pointed social commentary.

When the time comes to answer the titular question, the demon inhabits people around the participants and turns them into horrible apparitions, with freakish ear-to-ear smiles. Olivia describes this gnarly tableau as “like a messed up Snapchat filter.” When one doofus early in the piece chooses “dare,” then stands on a pool table, preparing to remove his penis, more alarming than the crowd around him are the smartphones they are holding, ready to capture and disseminate the moment. The games begin with ‘get your Johnson out’ style horseplay but escalate dramatically, all the way to guns and murder and terrible terrible secrets. As if the system itself were caught in a Network style race to the bottom.

Forget about nuanced characters or performances; you won’t find them here. The writing is sometimes stodgy, reheating waffle about demons and curses and the like. But make no mistake about it: this is ferociously sharp and pointed social commentary. If Wadlow and his co-writers (Jillian Jacobs, Michael Reisz and Christopher Roach) didn’t resort to cookie cutter scenarios so frequently, Truth or Dare could have been a screwy classic with a topical and timely edge.

The director critiques a world where the computer knows your sexuality before your parents do – and possibly before you do. One character receives a genuinely empowering buzz from being forced to come out of the closet. But the system won’t allow him to savour the moment. It demands more input of an increasingly personal nature. Going offline in this world is unthinkable; the equivalent of cutting your tongue out.

There is a (perhaps unintentionally) hilarious sex scene that’s all kinds of outrageous, fusing the film’s wicked spirit with the tangled sleazy web of an ultra-trashy soap opera. Laughing during dramatic moments is hardly a new sensation in horror films, though Truth or Dare can’t be dismissed as mere frivolousness. It has a tough, barbed subtext, so obviously about social media. It’s a shame the writers clog the script with rote scary movie gabble, as if resigning themselves to mediocrity. They didn’t have to. When this film gets its game on, it is ferociously engaging.

Find times and tickets for Truth or Dare