Just in time for Halloween (and a while after I saw it), Smile is a weird, grim and atmospheric horror that feels quite interestingly bizarre and gruesome, though it squanders its potential with a less-than-satisfying end.
Psychiatrist Rose (Sosie Bacon) works on a ward helping particularly unwell patients with mental health issues, but one day encounters a seemingly sane patient who witnessed a brutal suicide up close. When this patient kills themselves after seeing something horrifying that Rose can’t – and all while holding an unhinged smile – Rose starts seeing hallucinations of disturbing, grinning people everywhere. Is she going insane, or is this part of a supernatural curse that’s forcing people to kill themselves?
Director and writer Parker Finn makes his film debut with this movie, based on his own short movie with a similar plot, and for a debut it’s really quite impressive in parts. He’s put together a quite nasty, tense and grim thriller that owes a lot to the (vastly superior) It Follows, and while his plot doesn’t quite make the landing that it promises, the unrelenting discomfort and tension that he sustains throughout is the cherry atop the grotesque horror at the film’s heart.
The way that the throughline of the film manifests is a clever balancing act between the supernatural and the real – especially with the protagonist being a psychiatrist versed in mental health, and someone whose life has been irrevocably changed by someone else’s mental health struggles. Finn doesn’t really disparage mental health (a genuine surprise when it comes to horror or thrillers involving potential insanity), though given the conclusion that perspective could be challenged!
Suffice to say, but this is an 18 and it earns it with some of the gore on show. It’s not too much, but when deployed alongside the tense atmosphere and filmmaking it packs a punch – right at the end, some hokey CGI threatens to ruin things before a surprisingly macabre piece of practical effects gives everything a very, very different feel.
However, for a horror, and at the base level, Smile is based on a LOT of jump scares, but the way the film’s shot, scored and edited means that this reversion to stereotype isn’t a big problem. Finn drags scenes out to uncomfortable extremes, with editor Elliot Greenberg using long takes to ratchet up that tension before it gets released with a jump. Charlie Sarroff’s utilisation of shadows, split focus and dark spaces makes for unsettling hints at figures in the background or the darkness, and manages to make even daylight hours disturbing as a result.
Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s unique, disturbing and Uncut Gems-style synth score is one of the most unnervering I’ve heard for a long time, and coupled with some of Finn’s interesting filming choices (there’s a recurring use of upside-down drone or aerial shots of towns), while the plot may underwhelm sometimes, the technical side of this horror film more than makes up for it – creating a uniquely uncomfortable atmosphere.
None of the acting here will win awards, but when the main conceit of your horror film is turning the everyday (people’s faces) into the signature “mask” of your “monster”, it’s notable that Smile manages to just about avoid the potential minefield that relying on your cast for scares could be. The central performance by Sosie Bacon (daughter of Kevin) is strong, thankfully – she’s excellent at depicting a rational woman starting to crumble and doubt reality and her own sanity, and gets to take part in some powerful scenes amid the horror.
The supporting cast offers support and little else, with Jessie T. Usher’s strangely unsympathetic fiancé Trevor an odd fit with the story in how he ventures from empathy to “what the fuck, you’re nuts” territory so quickly. Kyle Gallner is slightly more notable as Rose’s ex (and convenient plot tool, aka policeman unafraid to abuse his position to help out), softening from awkward to confidante.
House’s Kal Penn and Scrubs’ Judy Reyes return to a film centred on hospitals in very different roles as Rose’s empathetic boss and one of the previous victims’ widows, while Rob Morgan makes an impact as one of the only “survivors” of whatever is happening to Rose. Notable mentions must also go to Robin Weigert’s sympathetic therapist and Caitlin Stasey’s patient Laura, with both actresses called upon to provide big swings in performance out of nowhere – Stasey in particular really makes an impact in one of the film’s earlier and more harrowing scenes.
You could do much worse than Smile for a Halloween scare or five – it’s not unique enough to be a truly great horror, but it’s got enough going for it to stick in your mind afterwards, especially the next time someone smiles at you.