Truth or Dare (2018)

There are two competing gimmicks at war with each other in the gleefully idiotic trash-horror Truth or Dare?. As suggested in the title, one gimmick involves a supernatural, deadly version of the schoolyard game truth-or-dare that drives the film both to explorations of contrived ethical dilemmas and to even more contrived novelty indulgences in demonic possession clichés. As delightfully silly as a haunted truth-or-dare game is for a horror movie premise, though, it’s not the gimmick that most endeared the film to me. It’s Truth or Dare?’s stylistic gimmick as The Snapchat Filter Horror Movie that really stole my trash-gobbling heart. Whenever demonically possessed participants prompt contestants in the titular game to answer “Truth or dare?” their faces are altered with cheap digital effects to display a sinister, impossible grin. It’s a design that unmistakably resembles a Snapchat filter, which is explicitly acknowledged in the dialogue when a character reports, “It looked like a messed-up Snapchat filter.” I’ve already exhaustively stressed in the past how important high-concept/low-budget horrors about the evils of the Internet are for being willing to document what modern life online looks & feels like in a way that classier productions would tend to avoid. Films like Unfriended, #horror, Afflicted, and so on are doing more to preserve the history of modern online communication than they’re given credit for, specifically because they’re willing to exploit pedestrian trash mediums like Skype, Candy Crush, and webcasting as foundational gimmicks for feature-length narratives. For its own part, Truth or Dare? has earned its place in cheap horror’s academic documentation of online discourse by exploiting Snapchat filter technology as a dirt-cheap scare delivery system. As silly as its titular gimmick can be, it wouldn’t have deserved camp cinema legacy without that secondary Snapchat filter gimmick backing it up.

It’s tempting to bail on enjoying Truth or Dare? in its initial setup & character introductions, which make for a very shaky first act. In an opening sequence so cliché it was parodied in The Cabin in the Woods a half-decade ago, a group of college age friends embark on their Last Spring Break Together and are met with a supernatural evil on the journey. Lured into a drunken, late-night round of truth-or-dare by a mysterious stranger in an even more mysterious abandoned Mexican church, the group is locked into a demonically-possessed version of the schoolyard game that follows them home and threatens their lives. Taking turns in several rounds, each character is challenged by hallucinations of the Snapchat Filter Demon into following through on truth-or-dare prompts or violently dying in refusal. Besides a closeted gay character and hilariously oblivious party bro (“I can’t say no to shots. Everybody knows that.”), none of these College Kid archetypes especially stand out as distinct individuals. They’re instead used as personality-free placeholders for the movie’s deployment in awkwardly staged moral dilemmas. The dares indicated by the film’s title are almost exclusively acts of lethal violence, but the real hook of the premise is in exposing the truth behind people’s desire to be seen as charitable & good. The demonic game of truth-or-dare forces characters to act out their unspoken desires and to confess their most shameful secrets in grand displays of public humiliation. The hidden selfishness of the self-righteous is a particular fixation of the game, as characters are challenged to back up statements like “I didn’t have a choice” or to prove claims that they’d sacrifice their own lives to save many strangers’. Honesty is the most highly valued virtue in Truth or Dare?’s worldview and it’s one the movie searches for in the most gleefully cruel ways possible.

Although the initial setup is a little labored (a probable side-effect of having five writers share one screenplay), Truth or Dare? gets exponentially more ludicrous (and, thus, fun) as its titular game escalates, ending on a surprisingly ambitious note with implications that are incredibly far-reaching & clever, considering the film’s lowly starting point. It’s possible to find more fully committed versions of the film’s central gimmicks in better works. The pitch-black exploitation comedy Cheap Thrills offers an even more cruel indulgence in depicting a series of violent dares gone out of hand. While Truth or Dare? verbally admits its Shapchat filter gimmick in the dialogue and adopts cell phone aspect ratios in its opening credits, it has nothing on the fully-committed Sickhouse, which is essentially a The Blair Witch Project remake staged through a series of Snapchat posts (and originally posted on the Snapchat app itself). Nerve might even be a better midpoint between the two gimmicks, where a series of escalating dares are filtered through the language of social media. The acting & character work in Truth or Dare? are aggressively bland. The music feels like faux-inspirational Chariots of Fire/allergy medicine commercial runoff. The PG-13 rating indicates both its potential for truly disturbing violence and its loyalty to genre cliché. On the Blumhouse scale, this film is more Happy Death Day than Get Out. On the Evil Internet horror scale, it’s more Friend Request than Unfriended. Still, its specificity as a Snapchat filter horror (as opposed to a Snapchat platform horror) distinguishes it from previous app-based schlock and its follow-through on the implications of its demonic truth-or-dare premise wholly makes up for its first act unease. If nothing else, I can report that the film’s ending is the most satisfying trash-horror resolution I’ve seen since the evil doll cheapie The Boy, a reference I intend as the highest of compliments (it did rank high on our collective Top Films of 2016 list, after all). Between leaving me on that high note and generating its terror through a disposable mode of online discourse, Truth or Dare? very easily endeared itself to me. I wish more people were having this much fun with it.

-Brandon Ledet

Sickhouse (2016)

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I’m a huge sucker for throwaway details from internet-specific visual palettes being employed in my cheap genre cinema. Titles like Unfriended, Nerve, #horror, and Beware the Slenderman have all incorporated bullshit, disposable internet imagery in their visual aesthetic to terrorize audiences with social media alarmism in a way that feels fresh & fascinating to me, making for some of my favorite cinematic experiences in the past few years. I honestly believe that these films, although instantly dated, will serve as a great time capsule of where our culture is currently at mentally & spiritually a few decades down the line, the way slashers defined the 80s & torture porn ruled the 00s. The dirt cheap, smart phone-filmed found footage horror Sickhouse joins the recent trend of social media-obsessed genre cinema by pushing its premise even further into verisimilitude. Released over three days last Spring via a series of posts on the Snapchat app, this hour-long cheapie actively participates in the social media platform it openly condemns. By adopting the format of its critical target right down to its mode of release, Sickhouse emerges feeling like a newly exciting filmmaking innovation, despite easy complaints that could be lobbed its way in terms of narrative ambition. Admittedly, the film doesn’t stray too far from its Blair Witch But With Snapchat premise in any narrative sense, but as an experiment in genre film technique, that formula was more than enough to generate some interesting results, especially for those as enamored as I am with films like Unfriended and Nerve.

“Have you ever seen The Blair Witch Project?” A character bluntly asks his fellow teens this blatantly silly question over a campfire, knowing full well that they’ve already been living the exact plot of that late-90s milestone. A handful of young, overconfident fools venture into the woods to investigate an urban legend about a haunted house, documenting their every move with an ever-present smartphone. Like with Blair Witch, their dialogue is mostly improvised, one character is blamed for getting the whole crew hopelessly lost, and there’s an excess of extratextual material backing up the central folklore to make it feel legitimate (visitsickhouse.com). According to that smokescreen website’s account of the True Events, the titular Sickhouse has three defining rules: 1) Don’t make any noise, 2) Don’t go inside, 3) Leave a gift on the porch. Like with Blair Witch, our dumb teen protagonists turn their noses up at genuine engagement with the local legend, laughing off the danger of the scenario and breaking every single rule set before them. Also like Blair Witch, they’re punished within the house they clearly should have avoided venturing inside in the first place, but there is no gore or violent end shown onscreen. Anyone looking for more than a brief flash of a face or a hand from the teens’ supernatural tormentors is going to be disappointed by what’s delivered. The film instead attempts to creep the audience out through pure folklore & mythology. Have I mentioned The Blair Witch Project enough to get the general vibe & narrative of the film across? Because it’s exactly like Blair Witch.

What’s most important here is form, not content. Sickhouse is shot entirely through the rectangular aspect ratio of a vertical smartphone video. Onscreen text & MS Paint quality doodles overlay the imagery in the way most Snapchat videos would be hastily edited. Because shots cannot extend past 10 seconds in length due to Snapchat’s formatting, the film finds kinetic energy in a never-ending series of rapid fire shots. Characters philosophize about the nature of Snapchat and social media at large at length. When our smartphone-toting protagonist is admonished for posting too often, she’s told, “Snapchat’s not a documentary. It’s just . . . stuff.” As an audience, we all know that it’s carefully curated “stuff,” though. Even when the two girls that drive the plot are sleeping, camping, or running for their lives in a haunted house, they’re always wearing make-up and always attempting to choose the most flattering angles for their omni-present faces. One of those two girls is played by *shudder* “YouTube personality” Andrea Russet, who brings a kind of authentically false persona to the role of a narcissistic brat who obsessively cultivates online fans, but will also chide friends for using their phones too often. Russet’s real life YouTube Channel features bafflingly popular videos with inane titles like, “Dying My Hair Purple,” “Cuddling With My Ex-Boyfriend,” and “My Morning Routine,” so her onscreen presence, as painfully inauthentic as it feels, actually has a lot of credibility to it that makes Sickhouse feels as close to the genuine thing as possible.

I’m not convinced writer-director Hannah MacPherson knows exactly what to do with all of this internet age narcissism & over-sharing except to represent it onscreen. There’s nothing to Sickhouse‘s social media themes that are explored too far beyond maybe a character ironically declaring, “Social media is a plague” while obsessively uploading short-form videos to Snapchat or a few online “followers” becoming stalker-level followers in a much more literal, physical sense. Still, the way MacPherson applies the visual & narrative techniques of broadcasting a curated personal aesthetic on social media to a standard obnoxious teens getting punished for smoking weed & having sex horror structure make for some really exciting results. I have my own stray complaints about some of her individual choices (the ending could’ve been more jarring, the third act body horror of the teens becoming ill could’ve been pushed further, there really was no need for any non-diegetic music), but for the most part I was delighted & energized by what she pulls off here. Many will brush off Sickhouse as a gimmick, an act of frivolity, but I think it’s secretly a doorway to the future of filmmaking. Not the long-term future, mind you, but certainly what’s soon to come. Even Sickhouse‘s phone screen aspect ratio makes it feel as if you’re peeking in on the film through a doorway and that space-conscious tension allows for an unnerving feeling in images like a mangled deer or a well-arranged still life of “gifts” left on the titular house’s porch. That won’t be enough of a payoff for everyone who tunes in, but I at the very least found it to be an entertaining experiment.

-Brandon Ledet