Truth or Double Dare (TODD)
2018 | L.O.U.D. (Living Out Ur Dreams) Films | 62 minutes
Every day, publicity agents send me pitches to review new movies, TV shows, web series, concept albums, and books. As a general rule of thumb, if they are asking me to review something, it’s probably bad. I only watch about one in ten of the movies that I get asked to review. I review maybe one in five of those at best because most are vaguely competent but clichéd riffs on familiar themes, destined to cycle through a third-tier streaming service and be forever forgotten. They aren’t even worth hating. But once in a while I find a movie so staggeringly awful that it takes even me by surprise. And I have watched every episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
The late film critic Gene Siskel once proposed a test for determining whether a film deserved to have been made: Is this movie better than a documentary of the same actors sitting around having lunch? Over the years, I’ve found this to be a handy way to draw a line between movies that are bad but deserve at least some thoughtful consideration and those that are complete trash and were simply a waste of time and talent. TODD is perhaps the first movie I’ve seen where the Siskel test fails. It is neither better nor worse than watching the actors have lunch, and I wouldn’t want to see them attempt small talk either. I would rather have watched a documentary about how director Shaquita Smith, scriptwriter Dea Divi, and story creator and executive producer Marcus Collins convinced themselves and whoever funded this movie’s IMDB-estimated $1 million budget that it was a good idea.
TODD stands for Truth or Double Dare, with one title appearing on the title card and another in the movie’s promotional materials. It is the third horror movie based on the truth or dare game to premiere in the past twelve months and easily the worst of the lot. The 2017 Truth or Dare movie is currently playing on Netflix, and the 2018 Truth or Dare movie, the one with Teen Wolf’s Tyler Posey, is probably available somewhere. I don’t know because I haven’ watched either, but I do know that they have to be better than TODD just in terms of sheer technical competence, though they probably can’t beat TODD’s inconceivable feat of failing to justify its minimalist one-hour runtime with a story to fill out the hour.
TODD tells the story of a group of friends from the high school graduating class of 2006 who, despite the presence of social media, are somehow unaware of each other’s lives until their ten-year reunion, in 2016, the year that this movie was apparently conceived and shot before decomposing in a vault somewhere for two years. (According to online articles, it was originally slated for a fall 2017 debut.) They suffered a number of traumas in their graduation year, including the brutal murder of a steroid-abusing basketball player, and the first quarter of the movie explores a couple of days in the characters’ high school lives, shot in what looks to be a rec center pretending to be a school, all without establishing the relationships between the characters very clearly nor providing them with distinct character traits. The movie then moves to 2016, where the same group begins to gather for their class reunion. However, since there is already a class reunion slasher movie (a couple, actually), and the budget did not allow for them to stage a realistic reunion, the entire concept is dropped fairly quickly in favor of having all of the action occur in the living room of one character’s house, where the reunion is nothing more than an uncomfortable house party attended by what seems to be 25 people, all of whom were drinking cheap alcohol quite heavily. An absurdly long scene involves one character staring at another’s breasts, seen in a POV shot.
Here perhaps is the only thing TODD accidentally got right. I am about to come up next year on my twenty-year high school reunion—if there will even be one—but I can distinctly remember how disappointing my ten-year was. My expectations had been shaped by Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion, Grosse Point Blank, and any number of TV shows where well-dressed characters gathered in brightly decorated spaces and enacted all manner of drama. Reality, as usual, did not match my expectations. My reunion was held in the backyard of a bar, and no one dressed up. There weren’t any decorations, and most of the people there were classmates who still lived in town and saw one another regularly anyway. It was basically a company Christmas party in August, but with fewer hookups.
TODD manages to capture that feeling of boring disappointment, albeit unintentionally.
After an interminable setup at the party lasting almost until the halfway point, whose only purpose is to justify the characters being in the same place without cellphones, the real story finally starts. Six friends, played by a group of vaguely familiar extras and background players from TV dramas such as Blackish, The Vampire Diaries, and 24: Legacy, decide to play the title game, in ways I have difficulty imagining actual 28-year-old adults who haven’t seen each other in a decade would. Granted, at my reunion my friends decided to play an elaborate drinking game, too, but it didn’t involve sucking toes or squeezing testicles. Anyway, when the group finds one of their number dead, they receive a phone call from the dead man’s phone instructing them to play an extreme form of truth or dare—here limited entirely to truth—or be killed one by one.
It is never really a good thing when the devastating “truth” revealed by one of the victims caused me to laugh heartily. Divi, the scriptwriter, didn’t seem to quite realize what she was doing when one character reveals a terrible rape and she then has a second character tell his girlfriend that he “let” her father “perform oral sex on me.” Regularly. For ten years. I imagine it was meant as a parallel, since the father is blackmailing him, but the line reading by Caleb J. Spivak borders on camp (which, really, is the only way to play in this movie). Combined with the unnaturally formal language (Is that how the young folk refer to blow jobs?), it threatens to cheapen the already confused theme of sexual domination and control that I will generously credit Divi with attempting to explore. You really have to see it to appreciate how what on paper should read as serious comes across as hilarious, but, really, don’t watch it. It’s not worth it.
You can basically predict the rest of the movie from here, with the only quasi-surprise being which member of the cast the law of the conservation of characters will reveal as the killer. To say that Scream did it better would be an understatement.
While I won’t give away the motivations of the killer—which made me laugh, to be honest—I do want to speak a bit about one of the themes that the movie doesn’t quite seem to be aware that it is playing with. All of the movie’s characters are obsessed with high school a decade after the fact. Their lives revolve around their memory of those years and invisible competition with the people they were then and the failures they attribute to primal sins from that time. Even though they have not bothered to keep up with one another’s lives, they nevertheless fixate on their former friends’ erstwhile lives, going back to freshman year, with some apparently contemplating past sleights daily. If I thought any of them had an inner life, this might have generated some pathos, but is it realistic? I certainly understand the appeal of nostalgia. Thanks to social media, I don’t really need to speculate about what onetime friends are doing now, but once a decade or so, around reunion time, I am wont to think about my younger years and the people who were a part of it. But even at 28, enough life had passed by and enough growing and maturing had occurred that it was challenging to imagine childhood grudges and disputes following through after so long. The faces may have been familiar, but the people were half-strangers. But what do I know? Dr. Phil often has on middle aged people confronting their high school bullies forty years after the fact.
All of this makes the movie sound like it has a basic level of competence. It does not. Smith’s direction never reads like anything more than an amateur attempting to ape a direct-to-DVD horror sequel. The pacing is off and the movie is unbalanced. Flashbacks cut in for no real purpose, and the action sequences look more like a YouTube video of WWE fans reenacting their favorite matches than choreographed battles between killer and victim. One could generously argue that this is realistic, but it is also boring to watch.
The storytelling is a collection of clichés drawn from other, better movies and pasted together by a screenwriter who seems to have lived only through watching bad horror movies. The lapses in logic are glaring. For example, once the characters have a cellphone but are worried about being overheard calling for help, they might have tried texting. Phones can do that now. For the logic of the climax to make sense, we have to believe that the characters overlooked a pretty big disappearance of the kind that The House on Haunted Hill took great pains to write around in order to make work, but which goes unmentioned here, along with the logistics of part of the villainous plot.
The limits of the budget are transparent. The lighting is counterproductive, blandly illuminating everything rather than highlighting key characters and directing the viewer’s eye. In the one interior shot where a kitchen window cannot be hidden, a piece of black fabric is taped over the inside of the window (not the outside), perhaps to hide the daylight, and it wasn’t even ironed to remove the creases from where it had been folded in its package. Be on the lookout for the shadow of the boom mike. The character design of the killer is uninspired, obviously derivative of Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer and their ilk. The whole production is inartful.
The dialogue is godawful. The lines are clunky, and every character speaks in the same combination of high dudgeon and absurd writerly formality: “Did you ever ask why I was so crucial to that transaction?” one character shouts in anger.
The movie’s weirdest flaw is also its most preventable. The actors are tasked with playing two versions of their characters, at what one character clunkily calls age “seventeen or eighteen” (apparently, they chose not to decide) and again at 28. The production team cast actors in between, most around 25 at the time of filming, but at no point do they ever look like high school students. Most convincingly give the impression of approaching thirty, but they all come across as far too old for their high school roles, especially when these scenes are cut side by side with present day scenes, emphasizing the lack of contrast and change across the intervening decade, but not in a way that makes a thematic point. The bad hair and wardrobe sees to that. Younger-looking actors might have pulled it off better, but so, too, would more competent makeup, wardrobe, lighting, and hair.
TODD is a movie made by people who have only seen other movies, and like a photocopy, it is not as sharp as the original. Badly written, woodenly acted, and incompetently directed, it reads like a rough draft of Scream fanfiction written by one of those A.I. bots forced to watch a 1,000 hours of awful horror movies and then spit out its best approximation of a real movie. This is a terrible disappointment, especially since the publicity materials for the movie emphasize the uniqueness of a horror film featuring a racially diverse cast and produced by a team with what they euphemistically call “urban flavor.” (Perhaps this is less of a selling point when it demands a comparison to the superior Get Out.) It is doubly disappointing to see that even in such a film, the racial and ethnic minority characters remain ill treated and subject to the same depressing (and, historically, accidental) formula that prioritizes the white “final girl” cliché.
TODD will be available on Amazon Prime beginning Nov. 20. The publicity team did not say whether Loud Pictures, the distributor, intends to charge money for it.
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