Jason Blum is the Roger Corman of our time, an inventive and economical producer who manages to work on more than a dozen movies a year, which range from formulaic horror flicks (Paranormal Activity, Insidious) to subversive provocations (The Purge, Get Out) to auteur-driven projects like Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash and M. Night Shyamalan’s Split. This year promises a slate of interesting releases that includes remakes of Benji and Halloween (the latter directed by David Gordon Green), Spike Lee’s docudrama BlacKkKlansman, and the latest entry in the Purge series, by far the most political of the Blumhouse franchises. Blum’s current release, Truth or Dare, is a reminder that he still churns out generic crap every few months to help pay for his more ambitious projects. The film is undistinguished, inoffensive horror fare whose greatest asset is that it never devolves into camp. Even when he’s making run-of-the-mill schlock, Blum maintains an admirable respect for his audience. The scares are genuine, and the characters aren’t meant to be sneered at.
One of the interesting things about Blumhouse’s output is how the films build upon themes from previous releases. The surprisingly melancholy Sinister 2 (2015) seemed less like a sequel to Sinister (2012) than a continuation of Oculus (2013), which also dealt with the theme of broken families. That theme also ran through Insidious: The Last Key, which came out earlier this year, and it briefly emerges in Truth or Dare. Blum is clearly fascinated by family dysfunction, but like Steven Spielberg, he cannily uses it to establish sympathy with his protagonists. The heroes of Blumhouse horror films tend to be relatable in their vulnerability, having undergone traumatic experiences that continue to haunt them. These experiences give the films’ horror some heft—the paranormal forces in Blumhouse movies always signals the return of the repressed.
Like last year’s Blumhouse release Happy Death Day, Truth or Dare centers on a college student who finds herself cursed. Olivia (Lucy Hale, in a charming performance) is a studious and good-natured young woman who’s introduced canvassing for Habitat for Humanity. Getting home to her sorority, she finds that her sorority sister Markie (Violett Beane) has canceled Olivia’s plans to join a Habitat project over spring break so she can go to Mexico with her friends. Cut to Mexico. On a dark, drunken night, the most mysterious member of the group convinces the rest of the students to play a game of truth or dare. When the game ends, he informs the group that they’re now doomed to go on playing the game or else die in freak accidents.
This doesn’t make much sense even by horror-movie standards, but whatever. At least you know you’ll see some young people die in gruesome ways. (Well, not that gruesome; the movie is rated PG-13.) When the characters get back to campus, they start receiving strange messages telling them to respond to a dare or confess a secret. The dares get increasingly macabre—in one scene, Olivia has her hand broken with a hammer after Markie gets dared to do it—but what’s more surprising is the seriousness with which the filmmakers treat the moments of truth-telling. One character, an aspiring med student, is instructed to confess to his dean that he’s been selling illegal drug prescriptions; another is forced to come out as gay to his overbearing, homophobic father. These scenes show how the characters’ lives had been based, to some extent, on lies; the confessions force the characters to redefine their relationships with each other.
Like Happy Death Day, Truth or Dare advances the winning message that young people can rectify bad behaviors before it’s too late. The movie, in fact, may be too optimistic to be truly scary, but it marks a pleasant alternative to so many horror movies that treats their characters as mere lambs to the slaughter. It might have yielded an affecting character study a la Sinister 2, but director Jeff Wadlow doesn’t have the sensitive touch that may have resulted in such a success. The characters of Truth or Dare aren’t developed enough to emerge as anything more than concepts; Wadlow’s direction lacks nuance and emotional commitment. Still, the film’s premise remains evocative, teasing at themes that one hopes to see developed in future Blumhouse releases.