2022 has been a weird year for horror movies. Per usual, there has been no shortage of them; some good and others not so much. But what’s been strange is seeing fair-to-middling horror flicks (à la “Barbarian”, “X”, “Bodies Bodies Bodies”, “Scream”, etc.) being granted ‘instant classic’ status by some truly passionate fan bases. Now don’t get me wrong, these films aren’t as bad as this year’s “Firestarter” or “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” reboots. Not even close. But it’s strange to see this level of enthusiasm over such unremarkable genre entries.
Thankfully 2022 has had a few good horror movies, including several originals (“Fresh”, “The Black Phone”, “Hatching”), a killer prequel (“Pearl”), and an unexpectedly satisfying sequel (“Orphan: First Kill”). Now we have another one to add to the list of bangers. “Smile” is a genuinely creepy chiller with all the ingredients genre lovers will be looking for. But it’s also surprisingly cleaver in how it deals with depression, trauma, and even suicide. The film peers beyond the cheery facial expression of its title to show that many things can be hidden behind a simple smile.
A really good Sosie Bacon plays Dr. Rose Cotter, a therapist at a New Jersey hospital’s emergency psychiatric unit. The film opens with Rose meeting a new patient – a traumatized young woman named Laura (Caitlin Stasey) who recently witnessed the suicide of her college professor. Laura begins telling Rose about her horrific visions. “I’m seeing something,” she says, visibly rattled but unable to put who or what she sees into words. All she can describe is the sinister, blood-chilling smile carved into its face.
Much of Rose’s job is spent trying to convince disturbed people that what they’re seeing is in their minds. But Laura is convinced that her visions are real. Then their session takes a horrifying turn. Laura suddenly calms, an eerie smile spreads across her face, then she slits her own throat right in front of Rose. Cut to title card!
That brilliantly orchestrated opening helps set the tone for the entirety of “Smile”. And it maintains that same unsettling mood for its duration. It’s not often that a horror movie can keep an audience in its clutches quite like this. But first-time feature director Parker Finn (who also wrote the script) deserves a ton of credit for creating and keeping a disquieting atmosphere. He also tells a story that’s simple on the surface, but with harrowing layers, often rooted in truth, that keep us on edge. The film’s biggest weakness comes when Finn loses faith in what he’s crafted and resorts to annoying over-used jump scares.
Reasonably so, Rose is shaken by the events of the opening and after the stress starts affecting her work, she’s asked by her boss (Kal Penn) to take a paid week off to clear her head. But when Rose starts having terrifying visions similar to those described by Laura, suddenly she’s the one who must convince those closest to her that she’s not crazy. It starts with her paper-thin fiancé, Trevor (Jessie T. Usher), by far the weakest of the movie’s characters. Then it’s her self-centered sister, Holly (Gillian Zinser), her former therapist, Madeline (Robin Weigert), and even her ex-boyfriend, Joel (Kyle Gallner).
Of course rather than believing Rose is being tortured by a malevolent spirit who smiles a lot, those close to her think she’s having a mental breakdown. And that gets to part of the genius of “Smile” – the indescribable nature of the entity itself. It makes the victims sound delusional despite describing the evil to the best of their abilities. As she’s constantly doubted, Rose’s growing feelings of isolation and despair only intensifies and opens the door for her own personal traumas to resurface. Soon she’s fighting two wars – one with a devilish supernatural evil and the other within her own head.
With the subtle (and some not-so-subtle) metaphors for mental health and its rich theme of processing past trauma, Parker Finn thrusts us into a world that pulsates with real-life resonance despite its outlandish (yet undeniably fun) premise. Not all of the dot-connecting works particularly well, and the above-mentioned jump scares cheapen things a bit. But Finn creates and sustains a gnawing tension, leaning on some gruesome visual effects, DP Charlie Sarroff’s disorienting camera, and the droning and wailing of Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s mood-setting score. It all makes for a gnarly cocktail; one packed with as many surprises as frights. “Smile” is out now in theaters.