An unexpected, winning horror film
The allure that people have towards scary films is a fascinating one; we seek to be horrified for the sake of entertainment. This is most easily provoked in viewers using jump-scares, which sadly have devolved into cheap fake-outs that simply use sound to startle instead of conjuring up true frights. Rarely do we get a film that brings about a chilling and unpredictable use of this mechanism, but when it does, it proves all the more terrifying.
Smile (2022) follows therapist Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), who works at the psychiatric ward of a Newark hospital. When one of Rose’s patients (Caitlin Stasey) kills herself while smiling at her creepily, Rose begins to see figures smiling at her menacingly both in public and in the dark recesses of her home.
Smile is the feature directorial debut of Parker Finn, who adapts the film from his own short Laura Hasn’t Slept (2020). Finn demonstrates both a clear-headedness at developing a simple and direct story, while also crafting some of the most ingenious scares of a horror movie all year. Smile is the only film in years to make me audibly gasp at the theater. Finn is able to play with the expectations of jump-scares, while also defying them, making every frame of Smile appear threatening to frightened viewers as a result. Finn also crafts an affecting story about communal trauma; how those who suffer end up passing their trauma – unwittingly or not – to others unless they face up to it. Bacon in the lead role is extremely capable, bringing a relatable everywoman quality to her character that allows the slow descent into madness to be executed fluidly.
Smile knows the type of horror film it is, and thus doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, sticking to a familiar formula. This might disappoint some horror veterans, who will simply see the borrowing of narrative elements from other films such as Ringu (1998) or It Follows (2014). Smile simply takes on these tropes, of a haunted person being followed by a menacing presence and executes it with deft. The strength of Smile is in working within this used structure and delivering surprises and entertainment regardless.
Smile is a winning horror film, using a familiar formula with a new twist. Finn crafts some truly unexpected and well-earned scares, which stick with you long after you’ve left the theater. I would be lying if I didn’t say I had trouble falling asleep that night, with the fear of seeing a grin leering at me from the darkness. That’s when you know you’ve crafted a memorable and effective horror flick.