By Preston Wilder
To MGM’s lion and Columbia’s ‘torch lady’ we can now add more recent studio logos, like Pixar’s bouncing desk-lamp or Blumhouse with… well, whatever’s going on in the Blumhouse logo. A door slams, a chair floats around, a wraith-like little girl lurches ominously. To be fair, it doesn’t really matter; Blumhouse does horror, horror involves evil spirits, and evil spirits don’t have to make sense. That said, there are limits. Not one but two Blumhouse films are opening this week (and nothing else; it’s a strange week), both with teenage heroines plagued by murderous demons, yet the two offer quite different viewing experiences. One is predictable but solid, the other collapses under the weight of its own idiocy.
Truth or Dare is the one with the idiocy. Olivia (Lucy Hale) and her friends go on spring break to Mexico, where they play the titular game in a haunted church. The game is ruled by a demon who continues playing when they return to the States, bidding the kids ‘Truth or Dare’ and killing them if they fail to tell the truth, do the dare, or just play the game. Sometimes the demon is a disembodied voice, even with some disembodied laughter (there’s an actual ‘Bwahahaha’ moment); more often, it speaks through friends or strangers, fixing their faces in an evil leer like the distended mouths in the old ‘Black Hole Sun’ video. It also likes to scrawl ‘Truth or Dare’ everywhere – scratched on cars, graffiti’d on walls – even burning the words into the forearm of Olivia’s friend Lucas, which leads to this fine exchange: “Something started burning ‘Truth or Dare’ into my arm!” “Oh my God, are you OK?”
The flaws in the concept are obvious. For a start, the game offers a safe way out: you can just tell the truth, which is potentially embarrassing but unlikely to kill anyone. Even after this objection has been (not too convincingly) met, Truth or Dare fails to deliver. The game just isn’t horror material; the demon commands awkward truths like “Who are you truly in love with?” (this is for Lucas, who’s torn between Olivia and her best friend Markie), or dares the closeted gay kid to come out to his father. It’s more like a high-school soap than a scary movie – especially since the deaths are unimaginative, despite some sterling work by a ballpoint pen and a billiard ball.
Truth or Dare is part of a trend, engineered mostly by Blumhouse: the bloodless, tortuously macabre horror movie, rated PG-13 in the States (though still ‘18’ here), that looks like horror but relies on Disney Channel dynamics and cheerful absurdity. The high-water mark is still Joey King in Wish Upon, asking the genie to make her dad less “embarrassing” then finding Dad playing his saxophone in the living-room a few minutes later – but Truth or Dare is also pretty ludicrous, trying to tweak an It Follows-like premise for angsty teenage characters working through their issues. Dare? Maybe. Scare? Not at all.
What I wouldn’t give for an old-fashioned haunted house – and here, right on cue, is Amityville: The Awakening, co-produced by Blumhouse and the infamous Weinsteins. The house in question is notoriously haunted, having been the subject of a bestselling book in the 70s and a movie franchise since 1979. At one point, a geeky classmate shows sullen Goth-girl Belle (Bella Thorne) the DVD of the original 1979 Amityville Horror, and there on the cover is the house that she and her family have just moved into – a nice meta moment that sparks a conversation about horror films in general, and remakes in particular. “Remakes totally blow,” agree our heroes, the film in which they find themselves being presumably not a remake, but – a reboot? A sequel? It’s a fine line.
Things happen more or less as expected. Bloodstains appear, windows close by themselves. There’s some weird heavy breathing on the soundtrack, as if to announce Darth Vader hanging out in the TV room. The house has a strange effect on Belle – and an even stranger effect on her mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and comatose brother, who stages a miraculous recovery. Catatonic bro awakens, albeit looking zombified and green about the gills (shades of the excellent 70s cult movie Deathdream, about a Vietnam soldier coming back from the dead) – but of course it’s not really him, he’s been possessed. “It’s bad enough that he’s trapped in his own body,” muses Belle sympathetically, “but now there’s something in there with him?”
The dialogue, shall we say, is not very good. (Worst Line goes to the hilariously po-faced “40 years is a very significant number in the Bible”.) The performances are actually slightly better, JJL finding some of her old 90s eccentricity as lapsed-believer Mum whose relationship with her son grows increasingly unhealthy. Amityville: The Awakening gets progressively sillier – but it comes with some twisted psychology and a couple of honest shocks, so it’s not unwatchable. Horror is a more forgiving genre, as reflected in Blumhouse’s films (and its logo). They’re ghosts; they’re allowed to be silly.
AMITYVILLE: THE AWAKENING **
DIRECTED BY Franck Khalfoun
STARRING Bella Thorne, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mckenna Grace
US 2017 85 mins
TRUTH OR DARE *
DIRECTED BY Jeff Wadlow
STARRING Lucy Hale, Tyler Posey, Violette Beane
US 2018 100 mins