I think it’s time for me to retire the old adage of “I don’t like horror movies” and just accept that the genre as whole has worked overtime to be consistently good this year. Even when I’m not expecting much from some of them, they continue to surprise and elevate tired concepts and tropes into new, inventive and effective ways. “Smile” has no business being as good as it is. What it borrows from other, similar films it does with care, doubling down on their strengths and correcting some of the weakness to deliver a truly terrifying, edge of your seat horror film. “Smile” feels like the love child of “It Follows” and “The Ring,” blending the high minded manifestation of trauma themes from “It Follows” with the supernatural jump scares of “The Ring.” The final product of this combined experiment is one unforgettable horror film, one that is better than the sum of its parts thematically but never forgets to scare the ever loving shit out of its audience.
Written and directed by Parker Finn, “Smile” marks his feature film debut, based on his 2020 short film “Laura Hasn’t Slept.” It follows (no pun intended) Dr. Rose Cotter, an ER trauma psychiatrist who witnesses a horrible suicide from one of her patients during a session. The experience leaves her unsettled, but begins to manifest into visions and experiences she simply can’t explain. As the overwhelming feelings of dread, terror, and hallucinations begin to grow stronger, Rose must confront her traumatic past and figure out what it is that is haunting her before it’s too late.
For a first time out, Finn proves that he is more than capable of delivering an effective and impactful horror film in spite of heavily borrowing from a list of films (most notably the ones mentioned above). Though somewhat predictable when it’s having to move along and incorporate inescapable tropes, “Smile” creates an undeniable mental torture atmosphere, and lulls you in with unnerving captivation and once it’s too late to escape, it assaults you with the horrors it has in store. Finn never loses sight of the themes and messaging he’s trying to communicate about trauma and mental health, even when he’s stacking jump scare after jump scare until your heart it racing so fast you think it’s going to beat out of your chest. “Smile” is effective on both fronts, so much so that regardless of its predictability or familiarity, Finn is going to get you one way or another. He seems to truly understand what it’s like to watch a mind unravel, and creates a world that feels as claustrophobic as it does relatable and universal.
Not only does Finn prove himself a capable and effective horror director, but Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s score is some of the best composed scoring that adds the final punch to “Smile.” Veer’s score swells to a fever pitch even as the slow burn tension sinks its grip into our eyes, and only makes things worse in the best of ways. Something is always around the corner, and no place and no one is safe in “Smile,” both in the physical and metaphysical world we’re watching unfold and in the sounds we’re hearing to match. It is quite possibly some of the best horror scoring I’ve seen in a long time, one that enhances the horrors instead of distracting from them. The combination of Finn’s keen, unflinching eye and Veer’s constantly moving score makes “Smile” an unrelenting nightmare from start to finish.
In front of the camera, it’s Sosie Bacon (“The Closer“) that’s making it all work. She delivers an authenticity to Rose’s unraveling, and while she becomes fully unhinged rather quickly and never puts the pieces back together, Bacon too seems to understand the effect of both treated and untreated trauma and the havoc it can wreak on our lives if left unchecked. And that’s a lot of what “Smile” is trying to convey through Bacon; smiling through the pain and constantly saying “you’re fine” only exacerbate the reality that is boiling beneath the surface, just waiting to burst through the facade and cause harm. Yes, Bacon nails the scream queen aspect of her character, but its in the moments of denial and reassurances that what she needs is simple and everything is fine when it is all clearly not. She doesn’t always strike the right balance at times, but “Smile” as a whole is so purposeful and steadfast in what it wants to accomplish that Bacon’s performance carries it across the finish line.
I think I need to take a second and give a trigger warning here. “Smile’s” marketing would have you believe that it’s as basic as it sounds. Demon/evil spirit takes over bodies and torments you with smiling until your time is up and you die. And it’s not wrong; stripped of its purpose and your left with a rather gimmicky, downright silly horror film. But there’s a lot more going on here than just that, and not all of it will be stomached by everyone. Without getting into spoilers, the majority of violence and horror all stem from suicide, with that being the trauma catalyst for the entire film. There’s no glorification here, and I believe “Smile” treats this sensitive topic with as much care as it can so as not to feel exploitative, but there is a LOT of suicide in this story and that needs to be addressed up front. It is both the high minded concept of the film and the actual events that take place, and if you’re not ready to watch a movie like that, I would recommend that you skip this one. “Smile” has the potential to cause some to relive or revisit past traumas, rather specifically I might add. And while that is in large part the entire point of the film, you should go in knowing that from the beginning.
From the marketing, I never would’ve thought that “Smile” would be one of the best mental health discussion vehicles to come out this year. When it does have to lean into its familiarity, it can start to lose its way, but thankfully it doesn’t do this too often. It is effective enough in the other things it wants to say and achieve that it doesn’t really impact the legitimate nightmare fuel it seeks to induce. This is easily one of the most unsettling, dare I say scariest films of the year, packed with legitimate scares that never lose impact even when you know they’re coming.
Don’t try to “Smile” through this one. It’s gonna get cha, and remind you that no, everything is NOT fine and you probably need therapy.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
“Smile” hits theaters September 30th. You can watch the trailer below.