MOVIE REVIEW – Parker Finn’s debut horror film, Smile, tries to please genre connoisseurs and those who just want a little horror. Those who enjoy such films will mostly appreciate the sophisticated story and interesting characters. At the same time, those unfamiliar with horror will find this film scares them effectively and efficiently, with well-dosed, constant tension, all the while rooting for a sympathetic protagonist.
Of course, a savvy horror film audience will quickly recognise how Finn repeats familiar elements of other popular horror films, and predict where the story is destined to lead from the start. Smile often winks at the audience as if to ask us with a winking smile, “You know what’s coming next, don’t you? You can see how bad it could get, can’t you? ‘ Although the story has enough twists and turns, it is easy for the experienced viewer to see what Finn is doing to his characters and the direction he is taking the story – and this seems entirely deliberate. Even so, the necessary impact is not lost when predictable horrors occur.
In the shape of acquaintances, the monster grinned and haunted me
Based on the previous short film, 2020’s Laura Hasn’t Slept, Finn’s script takes almost no time to outline who the protagonist is before his world begins to fall apart before our eyes. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), a therapist in a hospital emergency psychiatric ward, is used to seeing people in crisis and talking them down. Then she encounters a severely distraught patient who claims to be haunted by some malevolent entity that no one else can see, a terrifying creature with a creepy smile who torments her by appearing in the form of people she knows.
The story sounds like a paranoid delusion – and when Rose tries to talk to others about the shape-shifting, invisible, evil curse, it sounds like she’s having paranoid delusions too. “I’m not crazy,” she confesses to her mild-mannered fiancé Trevor (Jessie T. Usher), her frail older sister Holly (Gillian Zinser) and her former patrician therapist Madeline (Robin Weigert, seen in a role light years away from her performance as Deadwood’s Calamity Jane). But Rose can’t find a way to sound convincing when she says it, especially for a world that is cynical and insensitive to the mentally ill.
“I stand in the middle of a circle…”
Smile is often a slightly clichéd, even kitschy horror film, full of jump scares that border on the ridiculous. But somehow, it doesn’t matter how exaggerated, shocking or even convincing these scares are. Finn uses abrupt, loud sound cues and brutally fast cuts to make the audience scream and cringe at mundane things like Rose biting into a hamburger or ripping off her fingernails. The film’s imagery, editing and music are all impressively fine-tuned for maximum effect, so the slowly building tension is released with a sudden, cruel surprise.
Of course, the seasoned horror fan will find plenty of parallels with classics such as The Ring. Here too, it’s about curses “passed” on to each other, giving the damned a tight deadline before they die. There are other parallels too, but we don’t want to spoil them. This ‘inspiration’ is not distracting because of the quality of the story, well-developed characters and great acting – it brings a genuine smile to the face of the savvy horror fan.
While other films that have copied The Ring have simply seemed like theft (including several weak sequels of their own), Smile uses the familiarity of the story to ground and unfold its own story. Finn performs like a magician showing the audience how to do the trick and then doing it so effectively that it still looks like a magic trick. When Rose sees a possible solution to her problem, Smile forces the viewer to ponder the logical endpoint of her discovery and whether Rose will make the same selfish decision as Naomi Watts’ character in The Ring – and if so, who will be the victim here.
Something is following me here…
Likewise, the basic setup of Smile is much the same as in the 2014 horror movie, It Follows, where the threat spreads virally from person to person, relentlessly moving on to the next victim, taking on different faces as it goes, making everyone in the protagonist’s life a potential threat. But again, instead of feeling like a copycat, Smile uses familiarity to heighten the sense of danger: viewers here distrust that anyone they see on screen is a real person and not a ‘demon’ – which puts them neatly into Rose’s increasingly disintegrating mindset.
The central theme of the film also contributes to the sense of dread. From the moment a policeman deflects the responsibility of investigating a grotesque death by describing the victim with a flippant “He looks fucking crazy to me!” remark, it is clear that Smile is fundamentally about the stigma associated with mental illness and the urge to dismiss or demonise people who struggle with it.
Finn finds fertile ground in the vast and probably unbridgeable gap between those concerned and well-meaning people who are unaware of the situation. The audience’s sympathy is likely to be with Rose, who lives with a horror she doesn’t know how to combat. But it’s also easy to understand why others find it unpleasant to deal with a woman who behaves erratically, even dangerously, while she blames it all on some incomprehensible fear demon.
Staying on the level of classic horror
A deeper version of this film would perhaps delve deeper into the ambiguity of Rose’s situation and linger more on whether she really has a psychotic psychological trauma brought on by stress, overwork and trauma. Finn avoids this path and clarifies that something supernatural is at work. It’s a sensible decision in this film, which has some pretty classic horror elements, but it’s a shame that there’s no room for further depth. But of course, there is nothing wrong with a horror film that is meant to scare the audience rather than challenge them intellectually.
As a writer-director, Finn seems to know that people watch horror films for different reasons; some people want a more intellectual experience, others prefer classic horror content, and others just want to watch a good horror film. Either way, Finn has done an impressive job of ensuring we all leave the cinema satisfied or at least a little disturbed.