Thoughts on “Truth or Dare”

So, the next horror movie to talk about — on Hallowe’en no less! — is unfortunately not all that scary, although it might be the scariest of the three, which as we have seen and will see is essentially damning it with faint praise. “Truth or Dare” starts from an interesting premise, but one that has a fatal flaw for a movie that is trying to be a traditional scary horror movie, and its attempts to add scares fall flat and actually hurt its premise.

I’ll continue below the fold for this one because this is a more recent movie.

So, the basic idea of the movie is that the main characters are a group of college students who go off for Spring Break and get sucked into a supernaturally charged game of “Truth or Dare” that is run by a demon. The rules of the game are that if they don’t do the dare or don’t tell the truth, they die, and if they refuse to play, they die. This, of course, seems like a pretty interesting premise, but the fatal flaw soon becomes clear: telling the truth about something isn’t actually going to be scary. So the movie tries to build up the suspense by having the questions asked by people who get a creepy smile on their faces as they are possessed by the demon to do so, and by adding a number of jump scares and the like before things get asked, often with, again, demon-possessed people. However, this approach has two flaws. First, it takes away from the psychological horror that you’d actually get with having to tell the truth, and second it turns the demon from something that might just be targeting vulnerabilities to something that is actively trying to torment the protagonists, which changes the tone of the game significantly and causes issues for the ending, which I’ll get to in a bit. My opinion is that the movie would have worked far better with a demon that was simply targeting vulnerabilities rather than one that was actively tormenting people. So, for example, in one scene the alcoholic girl finds her bottle and starts to get drunk, and the demon chooses that time to make her go up on the roof to walk around it until she finishes the bottle. But that’s active torment; it’s trying to get her more drunk to try to make her fail the dare. If, instead, she had simply gotten plastered and then it had asked her to just walk on the edge of the roof, it would be targeting a vulnerability, and if she had simply not gotten drunk then it would have had to do something else. And this is consistent with what the demon does because it pushes them into especially telling the truth right when it will do the most damage, like telling a woman you just slept with that you really do love her best friend more, or telling the truth about her father’s death to someone who has daddy issues due to his suicide. Leaving out the torment would have allowed for greater psychological horror without the distraction of the cheap jump scares.

But I think the issue here is the perception that demons tend to do things “For the Evulz” and not for any greater purpose or any deeper motivation. While a demon that targets vulnerabilities is indeed one that fits most conceptions of demons — and arguably fits better with most considering who their master is — there are few movies that actually play them as any kind of manipulator or even as corrupter. “The Conjuring” handwaves at it, but the demon there does it through such tight control over its victims that it’s hard to see how it is really corrupting anyone. Here, they had the perfect opportunity to have a demon trying to corrupt the pretty and morally upright main character — very appealingly played by Lucy Hale — and while the ending even hints at that the demon’s goals never really seem to be that, and we don’t get any sense that it has any goal beyond “Torment and kill people”. While in “Happy Death Day” revealing the intentions of the supernatural force would have been a distraction and risked ruining the movie — although there is going to be a sequel to the movie where they explain that — here focusing on learning the demon’s purpose and not just on how to stop it would have greatly improved the movie by adding to the mystery, providing a horrific backdrop to the game, and taking up the time that was spent on generating jump scares.

I have criticized other horror movies for taking too much time to build up the characters so that we’ll be sympathetic to them, when in general we don’t actually need that to not want to see people horribly killed. This movie is an exception to that, because while we didn’t need to get to know them to see how horrible this game is and understand that even the utter jerk doesn’t deserve what he got, in order for the truth scenes to work we really do need to see how the relationships work and would be affected by it, and so need to know that the main heroine is in love with her best friend’s boyfriend, her best friend keeps cheating on him and uses their friendship to keep the main heroine quiet about it, and so on. That’s how we can understand why the demon asks them the questions it does when it does, and how it causes things to splinter and then reform. At times the reactions are odd and glossed over too quickly, like when after the main heroine fulfills a dare to have sex with her best friend’s boyfriend, the boyfriend is dared to tell her that he really loves her best friend more, which causes the main heroine to be very angry at him — which doesn’t make sense since she knew that the demon made him say it, and so while she’d be depressed that he doesn’t love her that much she has little reason to be angry about it other than by his saying that he wanted to make love to her, which it was already established that he did and so wasn’t a lie to make her feel better about the dare — for about five minutes before they rush off to Mexico pursuing a lead about stopping the game where they seem fairly friendly again, or at least not angry anymore. But, yeah, this is what the movie needed to do or little would make sense. In fact, it probably should have done it more and, again, cut out the pointless jump scares that add nothing to the movie.

So, the ending. The beginning of the movie establishes that the main heroine and her best friend have a catchphrase of “If it’s the world or us, I choose us”. However, when the game starts — before they know that they’ll die if they break the rules — she’s asked a moral dilemma about choosing the lives of her friends over the lives of millions, and she without hesitation answers she’d choose the millions. At the end, she drags the demon into the game and asks it how to stop the game now that the solution they came up with was stopped by the demon itself. The demon says that now there is no way to stop the game other than the deaths of her and her best friend, who are the only two left alive. (Does the demon want the game to end or go on, BTW? It taunts the first players into continuing the game, but then it keeps killing off the participants, and never actually lets anyone who does that out of the game. Again, For the Evulz). Anyway, at this point the main heroine repeats the catchphrase, and then posts about the game on her Youtube channel, thus bringing her hundreds or thousands of followers into the game. And then she and her best friend seem to drive off into the desert.

There is a lot wrong with this ending. First, as mentioned above, because the demon seems to be actively tormenting the players rather than simply playing on their vulnerabilities she not only is going to cause a lot of deaths, but a lot of torment to everyone who ever plays the game. This makes her decision here seem even less moral than it would otherwise, so much so that we can wonder why she’d do it. Second, all it does is selfishly keep the two of them alive for longer, and possibly for a long time. Where are they going when they drive off into the desert? There’s still no way to end the game without everyone in the game dying as far as the movie portrays it. So this comes across as incredibly selfish and self-centered. If the demon, when asked how to end the game, had instead said “Talk to X. They can stop it”, then there would be a point to extending the game in the hopes that she could keep them both alive permanently. This would be more understandable, would make the end scene more poignant and have a point, set up for a sequel, and have a better link to the moral question that the main heroine was asked in the first session. As it is, right now all they’re doing is delaying their deaths for an indefinite amount of time at the expense of many more deaths and a lot more torment. They can hope that it will take so long to get through her followers that they die of old age, but that’s probably futile and, again, incredibly selfish.

Which leads to probably the worst thing the ending does: it derails the character of the main heroine in a way that actually introduces a plot hole. The movie sets her up as being an incredibly moral person, as evidenced by her answer to the moral dilemma, and her various forms of activism. At the end, though, she chooses her best friend over countless others and dooms those people to torment and death. But while the movie could have shown her slowly falling from grace due to the torments of the demon, it didn’t do that. Sure, she got harsher as things went on — threatening the one person who could stop the game with a gun (which was idiotic itself because they really should have just explained it to him, as “Cut out your tongue to end the torment and eventual death from the game itself” is something that he should have responded to with “Sure”) — but we don’t really see her fall. So, then, given the reprise of the catchphrase it seems that we’re supposed to take away from the scene that she really does choose her friend over the world. But we don’t see her torn over that either, and coming to the very reluctant conclusion that she can’t choose the world over her friend. So we don’t get a clear sense that she’s changed her views over the course of the movie. But remember that she was, in fact, playing the game when she gave the first answer. Thus, she had to be telling the truth or she would have been killed. So she at least had to believe that that was what she would do in those circumstances. And yet the movie never shows her fighting with that belief and that part of her self-image, or at least not enough for the monumental change that the movie itself makes that out to be. So, then, why does she make this choice?

And they don’t even have the two of them make out because of this decision.

Now, that probably sounds facetious, and a play on the normal “Let’s improve the movie by having the hot chicks make out!” strategy. But here, the two of them discovering that their “Us against the world” line was reflecting actual love and not just strong friendship would have actually helped here. While it’d still be wrong, we could understand the main heroine not being able to see the one she loves die, and either having to watch it or having to do it herself. It might be an issue with us or our culture that we don’t think the same motivation can apply to best friends, but no matter what a love motive will always be stronger than a friendship motive. And even the ending could be seen as them going off to enjoy their love for each other in what little time the demon allows them to have, which is again a stronger motivation than mere friendship. And having the demon force them into that realization would allow it to be playing an interesting game, as either it was using them in a subtle way to get more players to torment or it was forcing a sadistic choice on them. Either would have made the demon and the game seem way more interesting than it turned out to be.

There’s also another minor plot hole/oddity here, which is the assumption that the demon can be bound by its own rules and forced to play the game. There’s no reason to assume that, since it sets the rules and can lie about them and about the rules at any time, so you can’t trust anything it says. So its answer in the game could be a lie, which no one considers. This also leads to an issue that at no time does anyone ever actually say “Screw this, I’m not playing the game”. Thus it’s entirely possible that the only way to actually get out of the game is to stop playing, and even that that’s the demon’s main goal: to see who will say “Screw this, I’m not playing this sadistic game!” even if it kills them. Note that doing that after choosing truth or dare is still playing the game, and so doesn’t count.

Like “Family Possessions”, the best part of this movie is the lead actress, who is cute and appealing and mostly sympathetic until the end of the movie. Unfortunately for “Truth or Dare”, all that does is encourage me to pick up her other work — “Pretty Little Liars” — that I had already mused about getting if I could get it cheap … if I can get it cheap. It doesn’t really encourage me to watch this movie again. The pacing isn’t bad and it wasn’t a slog or bore to get through, and the ending doesn’t really spoil anything for a rewatch, but it also doesn’t really give any reason to watch it again other than to look to see if it does telegraph her moral shift in scenes that I didn’t get the first time. And that might be useful … if I had nothing else to watch. But I do, so I almost certainly won’t watch this again for a long, long time.

4 Responses to “Thoughts on “Truth or Dare””

  1. Why “Pretty Little Liars”? | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] it starred Chyler Leigh, who was an actress that I liked. This one stars Lucy Hale, whom I liked in “Truth or Dare”. It also has Holly Marie Combs in a supporting role, and she’s one of my favourite actresses. […]

  2. Thoughts on “Party Hard, Die Young” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] really build suspense over it either. Ultimately, the killer kidnaps them and makes them play “Truth or Dare” to reveal what happened, and then anally rapes the two guys who raped her (she was his sister) and […]

  3. Thoughts on “Devour” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] the box but instead focuses on something else. Here, the plot it promises is something like that of “Truth or Dare”, with supernatural happenings being linked to a strange online game. What the movie is really about […]

  4. Thoughts on “Fantasy Island” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] and I have some experience with those movies, having already talked about “Get Out” and “Truth or Dare”.  There’s actually another link from that last movie, as Lucy Hale is in that one as well as […]

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