Tuesday, August 10, 2010

DVD Review: Truth or Dare?: A Critical Madness (1986)

When I received this dvd in the main for review from MVD Entertainment, I didn't know what to expect. I'd never heard of the film before, despite the accompanying press materials touting it as an "all-time horror classic!" and "one of the top 13 slasher movies of all time!" As I looked at the case, I started to get worried. The DVD cover was red flag #1--the skullface/crazyeyes photoshop job, the cartoon ants, the notebook-paper-on-fire copy background. That copy was red flag #2, as the flick's main selling point seemed to be that it "Includes a special performance from a young A.J. McLean of The Backstreet Boys!" Add the fact that there were no actual production stills anywhere to be found, and well, parishioners, perhaps you'll forgive me for having been a little doubtful about the quality of the film I was about to view.

The good news is, I shouldn't have been. Made near the beginning of the straight-to-VHS horror boom of the 80s, Tim Ritter's 1986 effort Truth or Dare?: A Critical Madness, delivers more than just two punctuation marks in a row--it's got unintentionally hilarious plotting, wonderfully budget-challenged gore, totally committed performances from semi-professional actors, and enough off-the-wall skewiness to keep any mad movie fan entertained throughout. Plus it's got that charming sincerity and passion that lifts some films above the merely bad into the rarefied realm of the glorious failure.

These are recommendations, people.

We now join Afternoon Adultery Daily, already in progress.

After a nice animated credit sequence in which the title literally bleeds from the scene, we are introduced to bored housewife Sharon Strauber (Mary Fanaro) busily banging her boytoy Jerry Powers (played by "both my character and real name are clearly superhero aliases" Bruce Gold) on the marital bed. Unfortunately for them and his scores of future victims, cuckolded architect Mike Strauber (John Brace) has forgotten some blueprints at home, and enters the house at the perfect moment to catch them in flagrante de fuck you, Mikey. Mary disengages (pshhhhht!) and escorts Mike to the door for the most half-assed caught-with-my-pants-off break-up in history, telling him "I've found a new life, you should do the same. Find yourself some good friends!"

Rather than coming back with something pithy like "Wait a minute, this is MY house!", Mike hops in his BITCHEN' CAMARO and drives down to the beach to contemplate the wreck his life has suddenly become. We get flashbacks to moments in their relationship Mike now sees as clear adultery indicators--apart from, you know, the unexplained crusty spots on the sheets. Back in his car, Mike pulls a revolver out of his ass and briefly contemplates suicide...but another flashback to playing "Truth or Dare" as a kid--in which the young Mike (future Backstreet Boy A.J. McLean, looking all of 9 years old) is dared to cut his wrist with a razor and does so, much to the horror of his friends--somehow makes him decide to postpone the hard shutdown for another drive.

(Oddly, in the flashback Young Mike shows his wound to his mother, who reacts by sighing, "Oh, Mike, when are you going to get some good friends?" instead of the more standard parental reaction, "HOLY SHIT YOU CUT YOUR FUCKING WRIST YOU STUPID KID CALL 911 AAAAAAAH!")

"I want it that way."

On his way back from the beach, our suicidal protagonist chances to pass a female hitchhiker with huge boobs and the most amazing 80s hair I've seen in a while. Thinking it's time to make a good friend, he asks "Where ya headed?" to which she replies, "Anywhere YOU are!" Instead of taking her to an hourly-rate hotel like a normal person, Mike rather elects to take her CAMPING. Apparently he keeps the tent and Coleman lantern in the Camaro's trunk at all times, and before you know it, the two of them are sitting around the campfire getting to know one another via a good old fashioned game of Truth or Dare.

What follows is a wonderful scene that will determine whether you're the type of viewer who will enjoy the rest of the movie or not. After a couple of warm-up truths and some significant weirdness on her part (suggesting--spoiler!--she's not what she appears to be), the hitchhiker dares Mike to throw his wallet in the campfire, which he does, symbolically obliterating his identity. He then skips the standard kissing dare and goes straight for the big guns--"I dare you to lift up your blouse!" Here is the scene that follows in pictorial form:

Beautiful Plumage

Wait for it...



If you're smiling right now, continue on. It gets more deliciously cheesy from here.

Things escalate as she next dares him to pull his eye out! When he refuses, she demonstrates his cowardice by pulling out her own and throwing it to him! Of course she's just a figment of his imagination, and dares him to increasingly self-destructive actions--cutting his finger off, cutting his chest open, and finally pulling his own tongue out with his bare hands!

It's at this point that John Brace really distinguishes himself as a totally committed thespian. This is not to say a talented thespian, necessarily, but the level to which he throws himself into the "going nuts" scene at the campfire can only be applauded and admired. His delivery of the lines (especially the repeated phrase, "You want me to [cut my chest, etc.]? ALLL RRRRIGHT! I WILL!") is simply epic, and his writhing-in-pain, foaming-at-the-mouth self-mutilation is a glorious exercise in OTT method acting.

"We've replaced Mike's regular chewing gum with Elasticized Goat Urine™. Let's see if he can tell the difference..."

Cut to Sunnyville Mental Institution, thirteen months later (as the weather-report scrolling text at the bottom of the screen tells us), where through speech therapy and presumed reattachment surgery Mike has recovered the ability to speak and grasp blunt or bladed objects. In the worst example of early release screening since Luther the Geek, Mike is turned loose, given his camaro back (watch for a great bit-character mechanic who sounds like one of the Car Talk guys' less amiable cousins), and off he goes, cackling maniacally, to kill his ex-wife and her lover. He gets half the job done, but bungles the Sicilian Divorce, allowing Mary to slash him across the stomach and escape. He stumbles out of the house, clutching his intestines, and collapses by his car, where a pair of good Samaritans call the cops and send him packing back to Sunnyville.

The rest of the plot is basically Mike going in and out of Sunnyville between attempts to kill Mary and various other incidental murders, both real and imagined. There's some pseudo-psychology from one of the doctors about how "he's been in this weird state all his life, things flipping in and out [of reality] for no apparent reason!" This gives the filmmakers carte blanche to throw anything in they want, even if it doesn't make any sense, just for the sheer hell of it--and this is a very good thing.

A few of the things they throw at the wall with varying degrees of stickiness:

  • Mike plays Truth or Dare with a couple of imaginary fellow inmates, daring one to cut his arm and leg off and the other to hold a hand grenade in his mouth! And yes, it leads to an awesomely cheesy Head Asplosion. When the nonexistent playmates dare him to rip his own face off, Mike shows what a good sport he is by complying.
Automatic +1 Thumb

  • Wearing a copper mask he forged in the institute's metal shop (I guess), Mike escapes the crazy ward and boosts a car, which he drives for the rest of the movie with its hazard lights on. (Which only makes sense--after all, he IS a hazard!) Moments later, Ritter pays homage to Battleship Potemkin's baby-carriage scene as Mike commits VEHICULAR INFANTICIDE.
  • A bunch of Greaser punks straight out of an S. E. Hinton novel try to run Mike off the road, leading to an intense car chase, a much-bigger-than-feasible explosion, and the time-honored MAN ON FIRE stunt. Class all the way round.
It's all fun and games till somebody loses a baby.

  • Still in the car he stole from the institute and having made no stops, Mike deters the cops with an UZI. Arriving at Mary's house, he gears up with several guns, a couple of Rambo-style compass-hilt daggers, a pair of nunchuks, a chainsaw, and a freaking SPIKED MACE. (In the DVD making-of interview, director Tim Ritter claims a scene where Mike stopped and picked all this stuff up at "a hardware store" was excised by the producers.)
  • Mike's ex-wife, the only actress willing to get nude in this film, has a languorous shower scene as he closes in for the final dare, which leads to a wonderfully nonsensical denoument.
And I haven't even mentioned the wonderful character non-actors playing the cops in this film--one of whom apparently is half Brahman Bull, judging from his tremendous hump of back fat! Nor the appearance of the legendary character actor Asbestos Felt (Killing Spree [1987], Creep [1995], Turkles 2010], as the head-explodey inmate.
Feared in Fort Lauderdale, Sacred in India

According the to supplemental materials on the excellent DVD treatment by MVD Films, Tim Ritter was only 18 years old when, through perseverance and admitted blind luck, he managed to land a development deal for Truth or Dare. The older Mr. Ritter comes across as somewhat bitter about the whole experience, and recounts how control was wrested from him once the producers discovered his true age, how the 2nd Unit director is responsible for all the continuity flubs, and how the original special effects man went crazy and built a volcano of latex in his hotel room, leading to a quick replacement and the resultant slap-dash effects that are actually in the film. Whether these stories are strictly true or not, I honestly couldn't care less. Anything that adds to the legend, what I say.

"Oh my God! You've RUINED my AbdomiWrapper!"

In addition to John Brace's admirable commitment to his role and the anything-goes plotting, the movies is also helped (or hampered, depending on your POV) by that amazing keyboard score by Johnny Britt and/or Ken Karlson. The words "repetitive" and "intrusive" only begin to scratch the surface of the absolutely relentless Casio-farting going on here, but it accomplishes the designated task of all film scores, which is to match the tone of the film it serves. If you listen to the whole score and DON'T feel yourself going slightly insane, your mind has as much endurance as Britt/Karlson's index fingers.

Clearly Truth or Dare?: a Critical Madness is not going to be everyone's cuppa joe. But if you like your 80s with owl glasses on and huge hair, your filmmakers earnest and impoverished, your keyboards turned up to eleven and slashers completely detached from reality, you should give this MVD Entertainment Group release a look. DVD extras include the aforementioned director's interview, a commentary track, trailers for Truth or Dare and its two (?) DTV sequels, trivia and a slide show--a nice package for a largely unknown and uncelebrated film, for which I salute the company.

2.5 Thumbs for the movie and its presentation (automatic head-explodey bonus points already included).

Dare You Not to Love It


Jose Cruz said...

This review seems like a guide to all the things a connoisseur of cheesy horror flicks would be looking for in their viewing experience. What's great is your ability to channel the hilarity that happens on screen into your own words. As always, I laughed like hell. Thanks for the read and pointing this one out. Perhaps one day I'll (gulp) watch it too!

P.S. YES to vehicular infanticide! Is it sad that THAT'S the selling point for me?

JamiSings said...

While I haven't watched this, I'm positive I came across it back in the day when Warehouse Video still existed. I recognize the cover and the title. I probably came across it when I was going through my vampire obsession phase and was looking for anything with vampires in it, picked it up, looked at the plot, realized there were no vampires, and put it down.

(Not to get off topic but did you boys ever get my e-mail asking if you remembered those movies where little bits and pieces played in my mind but I couldn't remember the titles of? Just wondering or if I'll have to resend. If you don't know them, that's okay.)

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Joe Monster -- Thanks for the kind words! The DVD streets this month, I think, so definitely check it out. And WRT your vehicular infanticide fixation, just so long as you keep fantasy and reality separated, it's all good. ;)

@Jami--Sorry for the lack of reply; as you can imagine, things tend to slip into cracks with alarming ease and regularity around the Vicarage and Duchy. I do remember reading it and not knowing a single title however, so maybe I just didn't reply out of shame from my own ignorance. :P

JamiSings said...

It's okay. I'll just post a blog post and see if any random strangers on the internet remember them.

A said...

I remember this one! Some friends and I watched it back when it first came out. We had rented some other terrible horror video, and when we returned it and complained, the clerk let us take Truth or Dare for free. Even as mid-80s teenagers, we could see it was awesomely ridiculous.
The dedicated thespianism was the only part I remembered until I read your review. "I dare you to tear your tongue out." "ALLLL RIGHT! ALLLLL RIGHT!"

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Aaron--it really is a wonderfully silly and non-stop enjoyable movie, provided you're in the right frame of mind! And such dedication is seldom seen in blockbusters many times the budget!

I guess what I mean to say is, it's ALLLL RIGHT! ;)

Horror Houngan said...

Interestingly, I watched this flick mere weeks after you. Without having read your review, I wrote it up for my own blog and basically said the exact same things:


Granted, with a movie this flipped out, there are certain details that demand mentioning.

Anonymous said...

This movie is a great part of my teenage years. My friends & I rented so many times we still repeat the keyboard tones & the Alllllrrright!!! Is still an inside joke. Unfortunately when the rental place went under I didn't get a chance to buy their vhs copy like I did so many other must haves from the store. Thanks for the article & bringing back some amazingly cheesy/classic memories :)

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