THE STORY – After witnessing a bizarre, traumatic incident involving a patient, Dr. Rose Cotter starts experiencing frightening occurrences that she can’t explain. As an overwhelming terror begins taking over her life, Rose must confront her troubling past in order to survive and escape her horrifying new reality.
THE CAST – Sosie Bacon, Jessie T. Usher, Kyle Gallner, Caitlin Stasey, Kal Penn & Rob Morgan
THE TEAM – Parker Finn (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 115 Minutes
We live in an age of “elevated horror,” where many acclaimed horror films often have more in common with drama tropes than they do with traditional horror trappings. They are often moody character studies, heavy on atmosphere and abstract storytelling, and light on jump scares. These films present their boogeymen as metaphors for grief and loss rather than actual flesh and blood creatures. That is not a knock against those films, as many “elevated horror” films showcase masterful filmmaking and storytelling. Still, it is refreshing to find a horror film that is less interested in restraint and conjuring a slow sense of dread and more interested in repeatedly making its audience jump and scream. A film that does not feel that it is above the jump scares but instead throws them by the dozen at its audience. A film that touches on grief and trauma, but instead of employing metaphors, features a literal flesh and blood monster that explicitly feeds on trauma– subtext be damned. That’s “Smile.” It is not subtle. It is not especially deep. But it is classic old-school horror, which makes seeing it in a crowded theater all the more fun.
“Smile” isn’t a wildly original concept. Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is an emergency psychiatric unit therapist. She works 80-hour weeks, chugging along on little-to-no sleep, unable to ever say no to another patient, and is suppressing the guilt she feels at failing to prevent her mother’s suicide when she was a child with a drinking problem and her own forced smile. Whenever anyone asks her how she’s doing, the answer is always the same: “I’m fine.” But when a patient commits suicide in front of her, an eerie forced smile etched on her face, even Rose can’t convince those around her that she is “fine,” especially when she starts seeing those smiles everywhere and hearing unknown voices. Is she following in the footsteps of her mother, who struggled with mental illness? Or is there an actual, smiling, evil presence hunting her?
“Smile” is a hodge-podge of other horror concepts. It has the creepy forced smiles of “Truth or Dare,” the “pass the curse on from one person to another” set-up of “The Ring” and “It Follows.” Plus, the “is there actually a monster or did I just inherit my mother’s mental illness?” conundrum as seen in several modern horror films like “Relic.” Yet somehow, writer-director Parker Finn tosses all of those concepts into a blender, and the subsequent smorgasbord actually works.
The question of whether or not Rose is going insane isn’t one the film cares to leave ambiguous. From the very start, the film makes it clear that, no, this is a real supernatural presence. But because it passes from victim to victim by virtue of shared trauma, anyone around the victim will presume them insane. We don’t know much about the mythology of the creature. Nor do we get to know much about the film’s supporting characters. The film has bigger plans. Namely, scaring the audience repeatedly.
Finn frames his scenes with wide shots that often feature actors slightly askew and then edits in ways that violate the 180-degree rule or mess with the eye-line, for example. That’s intentional. Because from the very start, these visual inconsistencies naturally put the viewer on edge. The film’s production design drenches the frame in pastels of blue and pink, resulting in an eerie and off-putting sensation. And most importantly, the sound design courtesy of Dan Kenyon (“The Trial of the Chicago 7“) makes sounds as innocuous as a can of cat food opening or a phone ringing into a jump scare sufficient to throw the viewer out of their seat. It overlaps with a score by Cristobal Tapia de Veer (“The White Lotus“) that incorporates those same sound effects (screams, ringing phones, squeaks, and thuds) into its score as instruments. Together, they present a carefully calibrated sonic horror landscape. Of course, the jump scares aren’t limited to sound effects. Finn stages scenes to take advantage of darkened rooms or blurry backgrounds, allowing figures to slowly approach from behind, building dread, or employing clever diversions, drawing the viewer’s eyes to one place, only to fling a scare out from another. But what is so compelling about “Smile” is that although it features several horrifying jump scares, they generally aren’t cheap. There are no fake-outs or jump scares for the sake of a cheap thrill. Instead, the jumps typically involve clever moments that advance the plot. Or, the scares are so creative that you don’t care (much like the rotating head in the car window jump scare heavily featured in the film’s marketing).
Additionally, Finn generates dread in other ways beyond the jump scares. The creature can alter Rose’s reality. As such, there are multiple sequences in which it lures her (and the viewer) into a false sense of security, only to reveal that it has impersonated an apparently safe person. To expand too much on those moments would spoil too much of the film, but that misdirection provides for some of the film’s biggest “gotcha” moments. “Smile” isn’t just aiming to scare, though. It recognizes that seeing a horror film can be fun. The film’s dialogue is sometimes rough, but the goofiness in those moments seems almost intentional. Plus, there is the explicit comic relief in early scenes. The film is simply funny as the sort of campy absurdity mingled with genuine horror that made Sam Raimi’s horror efforts so effective.
Sosie Bacon (“Mare of Easttown“), as the film’s lead, treads the line between horror and comedy convincingly. She’s playing the role up to eleven, making her character feel so overtly insane. There is an inherent comedy to a psychiatrist attempting to repeatedly self-diagnose to explain supernatural occurrences. Some of her larger meltdown scenes drew a bit of laughter in how over-the-top they were. But like a Sam Raimi film, that seems to have been the intent. She also explores her character’s emotional depths rather well. She is believable as a person so haunted by her own past tragedies that she is single-mindedly dedicated to helping others. Notably, the grief she experiences in the film’s cathartic climax is gripping. The rest of the quality of acting on display varies. Jessie T. Usher (“The Boys“) feels flat as Rose’s fiancé. But generally, the supporting characters are so underwritten that it doesn’t matter if the performances are weak.
And therein lies one of “Smile’s” biggest hangups. The film is intricately designed to scare the viewer over and over again. And it does so consistently, far better than most horror films have done in recent years. So when it doesn’t do that, it makes you giggle at how ridiculous it all is. As a pure fun time at the movies, “Smile” is an A+. But as a writing showcase, it leaves something to be desired. The characters are thin. There isn’t that much of a strong plot thread. To say the ending is predictable is an understatement. Plus, the exploration of grief and mental illness is neither as deep nor as thoughtful as it has been done in many other recent (less scary) horror films. But on the flip side, the film isn’t trying to be as profound or as coherent as some of those films. It doesn’t want to go much deeper into its themes of mental illness than having a literal grief monster. Instead, the film is about each individual scene after another, maximizing the punch of each without letting the scares feel repetitive.
Making jump scares work without letting the audience get bored is not easy. And that’s what makes “Smile” so special. It is endlessly creative in its “jump scare” execution. It’s the kind of horror that demands to be seen in theaters with a loud, reactive audience. It’s pure, classic horror fun done typically well for a major Hollywood studio. And in an age where horror tends to be often less focused on the individual scares, having a bit of throwback cinema that just hopes to terrify is a refreshing change of pace.