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It’s rare in Hollywood to see filmmakers who have their sights set on blockbuster glory to step back from steadily increasing budgets and spectacle to return to their roots. Yet, that is exactly the case for Jeff Wadlow, whose latest film Truth or Dare not only sees the director return to horror, but also to similar themes and concepts as the film that helped launch his career — with Lucy Hale leading a cast playing college students forced to play deadly game of Truth or Dare. Blumhouse, on the other hand, still riding high from the Oscar-winning Get Out, is stepping away from the past. While it are still the house that Paranormal Activity built, its horror movies have largely left behind the trend of found-footage features and traditional demonic possession films for high-concept originals that are rewarded for their risks and relevant social commentary. While the film had an effective marketing campaign and is impressing at the box office (it is expected to earn $19.2 million for the weekend), Truth or Dare is a project that feels caught between a director and a studio at different places in their creative ambitions, and this collaboration does no favors for either party.
In 2005, Wadlow directed his first feature, Cry Wolf. The film centered around a group of bored prep school students who spread a rumor through instant messenger about a fictional serial killer and turn on each other as the deadly game of lies they created grows beyond their control. Cry Wolf was a financial success ($15.6 million on a $1 million budget), but didn’t become a breakout hit for the genre that was still searching for ways to successfully tie horror and social media together. The pic’s critical reception was negative, but it does have its fan base and for a first feature that came near the end of the new slasher cycle that Wes Craven’s Scream ushered in, Cry Wolf is cleverly executed and held the promise of Wadlow’s continued success as a horror director.
Wadlow’s way back to horror was a bumpy one. His follow-up to Cry Wolf, the martial arts centric Never Back Down (2008), failed to catch on with the teen audience it sought. Next, the world of superhero movies seemed to be the route for Wadlow’s big break, as it had been for so many of his contemporaries. During the promotional tour for Kick-Ass 2, a sequel to Matthew’s Vaughn’s well-received, cult comic adaptation, Wadlow discussed his plans to helm Marvel’s X-Force. But the deafening silence that Kick-Ass 2 was met with and 20th Century Fox’s decision to move ahead with Deadpool, instead of X-Force, left Wadlow without a comic franchise to attach his name to. After directing Netflix’s Adam Sandler vehicle, True Memoirs of an International Assassin (2016), which holds a 0 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, Wadlow has come back home to horror, backed by Blumhouse, which surely hopes Truth or Dare will be the same kind of teen-friendly breakout that Happy Death Day proved to be in October when it was also released on a Friday the 13th.
Over the last couple years, Blumhouse, the production company primarily known for its consistent output of horror movies, has enjoyed steadily increasing success. This success has come not only in form of tickets sales, but also in terms of critical reception. Blumhouse’s horror efforts have excelled at engaging new audiences looking for original thrills. Through the Insidious and Purge franchises and high-concept, director-driven films like M. Night Shyamalan’s Split and Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Blumhouse is a name that carries more weight than ever. While not every recent film has found success, most of its lesser movies (such as 2016’s The Darkness and Incarnate) have been swept under the rug, with the films that the banner markets the most seeming both to carry Blumhouse’s faith and to receive the most positive response from audiences. Its most recent release, billed on promotional materials and box-office listings as Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare, puts the force of the studio behind it, encouraging audiences to see it not just because of its genre, or filmmaker, but because it’s a Blumhouse film and therefore an event.
Truth or Dare may open with “A Jeff Wadlow Film,” but with four credited screenwriters and a tonal disjointedness that feels like an attempt to calibrate according to studio notes, the film doesn’t seem to deliver on its promise of being Wadlow’s or Blumhouse’s. Obviously influenced by It Follows and an attempt to pick up the ball dropped by Rings, Truth or Dare is conceptually strong. The dissolution of a group of friends who become caught up in their lies and secrets, often incited by social media, is, in theory, the perfect companion piece to Cry Wolf. But the film feels dated, largely because so much of its characterizations feel false, especially considering the strides Blumhouse has made on this front. The pic’s emotional hook, based on the moral consideration of whether the lives of a few are more important than the lives of many, don’t gel with characters that seem exaggeratedly spiteful. This latter aspect feels more like Wadlow’s voice, given his earlier filmography, and that kind of political incorrectness and frat humor feels ill-conceived in a film that’s also trying to deal with empathy and honesty.
While Truth or Dare deserves credit for following through with its concept and raising its stakes up to the end, there’s no tension in what’s happening onscreen. It feels self-conscious every step of the way, trying to blend early-2000s horror sensibilities with modern ones, and the result is middling. Neither nostalgic enough to make a point nor forward-thinking enough to emotionally engage, the film does no favors for Wadlow or Blumhouse, though both will undoubtedly bounce back creatively (Blumhouse surely within the year). Forced to choose between a director with entertaining ideas and looking to secure his footing and a studio that has found itself with unprecedented success, Truth or Dare feels like a film afraid to move in any direction.
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