Minimally-sized budgets, maximum creative freedom. Such is the maxim of renegade Hollywood producer Jason Blum and his exponentially influential outfit Blumhouse Productions, paraphrased from Truth or Dare writer-director Jeff Wadlow at his latest film’s world premiere in his native Charlottesville, Virginia. You can see the logic in Blum’s tried-and-true financing and filmmaking philosophy. Though a smaller budget presents a variety of challenging limitations for filmmakers to work around, it does force them to achieve a greater level of creativity and shrewdness they might not have felt as compelled to reach if their backing reached high-eight and low-nine figures.
Complete financier trust can only aid in these quests for inspiration. In nearly a decade of operation as a film and television production company, no film carrying the Blumhouse banner has exceeded a $10 million production budget. In fact, only select entries from the ever-profitable Insidious, Purge, Paranormal Activity and Sinister franchises can say they’ve known such riches. Just looking at some of the company’s most critically-acclaimed works in particular, Get Out, Whiplash and The Gift included, the average production budget between all three comes out to a mere $4.27 million.
In an industry looking for answers to Peak TV’s yet-to-burst bubble, Blum may have just found one; obligatory ingenuity meeting instantaneous profitability. And yet, leading up to its premiere this weekend, Wadlow’s Truth or Dare doesn’t face much pressure living up to the company’s expanding stature and star-studded filmography only because of its customarily low $5 million price tag. Regardless of who was producing it and how much money it received, any genre flick appropriating as childish a game as ‘Truth or Dare’ for a traditional line ‘em up and knock ‘em down-style affair would have their requests of being taken seriously swiftly denied. Most of those who buy in won’t expect the next Get Out in terms of effective chills, though they may unfortunately exit the auditorium as disappointed as if they had.
Truth or Dare’s base concept and narrative simplicity are all but a tacit, perhaps superficial confirmation that the Final Destination series lives on in a ridiculous, most unforeseen fashion. A group of college friends on spring break in Mexico are lured into a game of Truth or Dare with unexpectedly fatal consequences, and when a demon controlling the game follows them home, they’re forced to relive a vicious cycle of upward-scaling questions and commands that holds their lives in the balance. Tell the truth, or you die. Complete the dare, or you die, and the sequence goes on until the last survivor gets their untimely comeuppance.
It’s a silly premise tailor-made for sardonic self-reflexivity or sincerely felt B-movie comfort thrills, because if you’re an actor or director, how couldn’t you approach it in either direction, especially given the increasing savvy of genre-sophisticated audiences spotting the wool before it can cover their eyes? Anyone can spot schlock and unflinchingly celebrate it, but neither Wadlow nor his cast ever visibly demonstrate an awareness to Truth or Dare’s inherent absurdity.
Looking a gift horse in the mouth, they veer away from either previously mentioned forks in the yellow brick road, insisting they can craft 100 minutes of pulse-pounding terror out of a preteen’s idea of non-parentally supervised fun gone demonic. While it is fascinating watching the cast and crew work harder, not smarter to achieve their admirably desired effect, the narrative mapped out and characters devised are too equally thin to generate intrigue or palpable scares. The creativity one would hope to find from a Blumhouse product hardly exists here aside for one or two moments, and instead, the storytelling devolves into conventional patterns and unproductive stretches that stifle investment and genuine horror.
Yet another example of propping up archetypes only to knock them down in a foreseeable order, the film gives no pause for its panicking protagonists aside from their simplistic relationships to one another. The intended emotional core revolves around Lucy Hale’s straight-laced Olivia and Violett Beane’s spontaneous Markie, a fraught friendship whose bonds are inevitably tested by this twisted game. Learning next to nothing about either, Truth or Dare persists with making the distractingly constant back-and-forth between their reluctant alliance and petty rivalry the emotional thrust, intended to provide the screenplay’s formulaic structure greater substance.
Instead, it represents time wasted from digging deeper into the nature of their conflicting personas and acts as a vessel for a chunk of the film’s exceptionally poor, sometimes laughable dialogue. Their relationship becomes its own cycle of contempt and forgiveness, and thus cannot wring tension out of its ‘arc’ in conjunction with the game’s and story’s increasing intensity. Unrelentingly asinine as the film is, however, character depth was never going to pose its greatest challenge in supplementing the horror. Self-serious posturing means Wadlow and Co. are their own brick wall. Dare I say, their film is only stupid to a fault because of how seriously it takes itself.
So, how this film ends on an uncharacteristically strong philosophical note will confound any of you who’ve just read this sentence. In the film’s closing sequences, for the briefest moment, it seems as though the horror itself came with headier, nay nihilistic purposes as it relates to human impulse. Subtly echoing a seemingly inconsequential scene regarding Hale’s Olivia, the final scene creates a stunning reversal from her initial ethical response to a trolley problem-type question asked in the opening Truth or Dare game, demonstrating how much the game’s devilish psychological mischief has changed her moral outlook while precluding the necessity of a sequel.
It’s a nice little callback making Truth or Dare just barely worthy of a quick take video from the Wisecrack folks, but even then, it’s a moment that simultaneously intrigues as to Wadlow and Co.’s potential creative and intellectual intent and frustrates because of what it could have represented for Olivia by way of thought-provoking character development. At perhaps only one other point in the story is this moral conundrum incorporated as a motivating factor for Olivia’s actions, meanwhile the rest of the narrative focuses not specifically on her, but rather on expository demonology significant only to the climax, cheap character moments and un-enthralling set-pieces handicapped by neutered PG-13 violence.
Brought up and quickly all but forgotten until the final shots, this ethical quandary never feels an integral part of Olivia’s character, meaning the film misses out on what could have been a compelling anchor to help its solemn, scare-first approach work. Aside from an ingenious ending, almost nothing about this film works, in fact, but can we pin all of its failures against a directorial approach attempting its damnedest to create a genuinely terrifying feature? Quite possibly.
Being taken seriously was never an option for this premise, and yet the resulting film spends over an hour and a half unsuccessfully trying to fool the audience into believing it was always a choice. Wadlow and Co. certainly had plenty of choices if we’re to believe the Blumhouse Productions philosophy of maximum creative freedom, and whatever opportunities presented themselves to them were either squandered or ignored entirely – not that it’ll bother Mr. Blum. After the box office clout his company has gained in the last few years, what’s $5 million?