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Director: Jeff Wadlow

Screenplay: Jillian JacobsMichael Reisz 

Starring: Lucy HaleTyler PoseyViolett Beane

Review: David Stephens

This isn’t the wonderfully sick 2013 gore-fest from Jessica Cameron finally getting a release in the UK. Nor is it a re-release of the 1991 Madonna documentary. And neither is it (*quickly checks IMDB*) the other 20-odd (seriously!!) films and shorts with the exact same name. This is the latest PG-13 horror from Blumhouse studios, who seemingly rule the roost in genre cinema at the moment. Unoriginal name criticising apart, the film has some pedigree and a fair bit of anticipation. It’s directed by Jeff Wadlow, who was set to bring snarky hero Deadpool to life at one point and directed Kick-Ass 2 and Cry Wolf. It also has a hot young cast consisting of talent like Lucy Hale (Pretty Little Liars, Scream 4), Tyler Posey (Teen Wolf, Scream: The TV Series), and Violett Beane (The Flash, The Leftovers). The first major release for Blumhouse since Insidious: The Last Key and Happy Death Day, both of which were financial successes, it’s getting major distribution in cinemas around the world. It also happens to get the best possible release date in the US and UK, with it hitting theatres on Friday the 13th. YGROY eats a Tide Pod, pours a bucket of ice over its head… and then decides to grow up and see the film instead.

It starts with an unidentified female fugitive immolating a random woman at a gas station for no apparent reason. It then switches to Olivia Barron (Hale), a do-gooding student who is determined to work on a housing project during Spring Break instead of getting wasted. She reckons without the intervention of best buddy Markie Cameron (Beane) though, and she ultimately ends up in Mexico with a group of friends. Cue depressingly familiar soft-rock party montage on suspiciously empty beaches, before they spend the last night at a club. Olivia finds herself drawn to a chivalrous guy at the bar called Carter (Landon Liboiron) who joins the group and takes them to a decrepit church, for a night of drinking and games. As you do. Not questioning for a second whether to join a stranger in a spooky-ass ruin, the friends soon fall into the titular game, with the requisite streaking, same-sex snogs, and secrets. Carter then reveals that it’s all a ploy and before he disappears, he tells them that they need to continue to play the game or die. Baffled the group return home, only to find mysterious messages dogging them. Then Olivia encounters a group of demonically grinning students that force her to tell a truth, threatening her relationship with Markie. She lives as a result, but as the game proceeds others aren’t so lucky. How do they stop it?

Whilst Blumhouse might have some detractors online (who doesn’t?) we’re fans of the studio to be honest, and usually find something positive to say about their offerings, be it PG-13 or R-rated. 2017 was a vintage year for them with Split, Get out and Happy Death Day being all absolutely brilliant. Insidious: The Last Key was an entertaining franchise entry, if a little pedestrian. So we were hoping for some good vibes for this latest film, especially as the trailers teased a plot that looked like a cross between Final Destination and It Follows. Who doesn’t love a fun horror with a killer central concept? (*Winks and points at Happy Death Day*). So how does it measure up?

Not very well to be honest, and it feels like a real step backwards after the likes of the previously mentioned studio films. There are a few reasons for this. Despite the Final Destination vibes, the groundwork here is so sloppy and undefined that you’re never sure where it’s leading. It copies FD’s order-of-death framework, with characters chosen for “turns” during events. But it says a lot for the plot’s coherence that the game’s “rules” are changed at least three times, just to provide dramatic license and interest. Also FD had intricately staged grisly deaths to anticipate, and whilst we recognise that it is a PG-13 rating, the sheer “terror” of having to show your junk or tell your BFF that you fancy her boyfriend just doesn’t compare in all honesty. And that’s another issue, because we’re not expecting graphic demises or geysers of gore but TOD is almost horror-free in content and is “impressively” un-scary. Moments like hand-injuries and pen-stabbings are never milked for dramatic tension, and nearly all the jump-scares are of the false argh-oh-it’s-just-you variety. There are plenty of PG-13 horrors that have worked well recently, but this doesn’t.

The supernatural menace is just as shambolic in its methods, sometimes resurrecting corpses for no reason and sometimes just using text messages. The CG-enhanced super-grin seems to be everywhere at the moment from Day of the Dead: Bloodline to Gotham (Helloo Joker!). And it is quite creepy on occasions here, but not always and the more it’s used the less creepy it becomes. Some of the cast just look like they’re holding in a fart at certain points rather than being possessed. The lack of genuine scariness highlights the main problem with the whole project. Without sounding too patronising, it feels entirely aimed at the millennial generation’s fears and neglects to broaden its appeal. The main developments of the plot make it seem like an afternoon soap-opera rather than genre. Of course one character has a secret they would die to keep. Of course there’s a love-triangle (and an excuse for the most contrived PG-13 sex scene ever). And there are oodles of clunky exposition to support that. One character opens a conversation mentioning her father’s death in the blandest way possible, and another’s medical fraud is brought up constantly for no reason. The fact that someone advances the plot by literally googling “Mexico Truth or Dare” deserves a face-palm as well. As it zeroes in on details like that, it also highlights the group’s fear of social media turning against them, rejection by their peers, and betrayal by friends. Teenagers, eh?

To be fair, there is some welcome darkness that creeps into the story as it nears the end, although it still doesn’t feel particularly frightening. But at least there is some tension, and a couple of surprising and atypical developments. And there is a brilliantly cynical last movement that might explain some bizarre behaviour exhibited by certain members of society, at least for some of us oldies anyway. However, this all feels a little bit too-little too-late and doesn’t really reprieve it or make you hunger for a sequel. With the exception of Hale and Beane (who are both pretty good despite the script), most of the cast feel too thin to make any kind of impression. That wasn’t such an issue in the FD films, where you knew who was in line to cop an unfortunate accident. Due to the contrived nature of the game here, a character’s turn might spell doom for someone else. It’s all very loose and not much fun.

We’re aware that we’re probably not in the demographic for this movie, as the line “They looked like messed-up snapchat filters” speaks volumes for that possibility. And it’s entirely believable that younger horror fans will get a great deal more from it than we did. But it’s not a high-point for PG-13 horror or Blumhouse. It’s horror-lite for the Instagram set and it could have been so much more, had the script and premise been tightened up. If someone dares you to see it, make sure you know the truth about what you’re letting yourself in for…

Very light on any kind of genuine horror, TOD actually feels like a niche genre movie created solely for teenagers. A lot of the “truths” and “dares” feel pretty lame and childish, with soap-opera secrets and romantic jealousy being the main thrust. Beane and Hale are the best of a group of forgettable characters, and there is a little welcome darkness come the end, but this is one of the most disappointing Blumhouse releases for ages. S’true.
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