Smile (2022)

What makes you …

Using the universal symbol of happiness, a smile, to elicit fear, writer-director Parker Finn delivers a solid feature-length directorial debut with Smile, the film conjuring up enough terror, suspense, and grotesque visuals to make horror aficionados grin from ear to ear. Despite treading a familiar horror movie route — Smile takes its cues from movies like Gore Verbinski’s 2002 The Ring re-make, David Robert Mitchell’s excellent It Follows (2014), and the so-so Truth or Dare (2018) — Finn tries to do more with the feature by tackling the effects of trauma and PTSD, even if these elements could have been fleshed out a little more.

Smile, the worst is yet to come.

The film follows Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), a psychologist who works at a hospital treating patients in the emergency psych unit as a means of dealing with the burden of witnessing her mother’s suicide when she was a kid and having done nothing to prevent it. Rose’s mental state, however, begins to deteriorate after she evaluates an unstable Ph.D. student, Laura (Caitlin Stasey), who had witnessed a nasty suicide. Laura begs Rose to believe her when she explains that she’s being haunted by a malevolent presence that only she can see, an entity that can take the appearance of anyone and smiles at its victims. In a hysterical state, Laura proceeds to kill herself in a grisly manner (using a shard from a shattered ceramic vase) right in front of Rose. Soon after, strange things begin to happen to Rose — she has unsettling hallucinations and is the subject of bizarre incidents — leading her to believe that whatever possessed her patient, Laura, has now attached itself to Rose.

Based on his 2020 short film Laura Hasn’t Slept, writer-director Finn builds on this story by touching on Rose’s past with her mother, strained relationship with her older sister Holly (Gillian Zinser), and her situation with fiancé Trevor (Jessie T. Usher) and former flame, police officer Joel (Kyle Gallner). As the evil specter makes itself more known to Rose, and those around her begin to suspect that she’s starting to go down the same sinking spiral that her mother did, Finn uses the horror to explore the deteriorating effects of mental health and how its ripples can lead to loneliness, isolation, and paranoia. Forced to take a week off work and somewhat ignored by her therapist Dr. Madeline Northcott (Robin Weigert), Rose eventually turns to her ex-partner Joel, who helps her research the malignant being that’s latched onto her, in turn discovering the stack of bloody bodies it’s left in its trail.

A smile can hide the deepest pain.

Taking an investigative route for much of its lengthy 115-minute runtime, Finn doesn’t flesh out the specifics of the supernatural threat, unlike, say, The Ring’s Samara Morgan, with very little known about the sinister entity by the film’s close, its history left somewhat vague. While the smiley-faced threats are frightening foes, a meatier backstory on the ghoul and its lore would have made the feature feel that bit more ‘complete.’

Fortunately, the production design by Lester Cohen, Things Heard & Seen (2021), is great, with the production team going for a minimalistic approach when it comes to the aesthetic of the flick, the simple sets mirroring Rose’s state of mind. Similarly, Finn uses several nifty camera tricks, such as rotating shots and upside-down framing, which add to the themes of delusion and hysteria, as well as the ominous threat of impending doom. The score by Cristobal Tapia de Veer, Black Mirror (2017), is effectively unnerving and embodies Rose’s slow descent into madness. Finn does go a smidge OTT with the jump scares, using the worn-out technique to craft some effective yet cheap frights. It’s the special effects team at Amalgamated Dynamics, though, that should really be commended for their superb work here, the film delivering some rather disturbing imagery throughout. The third act, in particular, features one of the most unsettling movie monsters in recent memory, the outstanding creature design — which will delight and disturb horror fanatics in equal measure — truly worth the price of admission.

Once you see it, it’s too late.

The whole thing is held together by Sosie Bacon, Mare of Easttown (2021), whose vulnerable performance as Rose effortlessly flicks between panic and eventual withdrawal as she becomes estranged from those around her, Bacon painting a terrifying picture of the lingering effects of trauma. Kyle Gallner, Scream (2022), is also good as Joel, Rose’s ex-partner and the cop who’s been signed onto her case; he winds up being her only ally in the fight against the paranormal. Even Kal Penn, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), stands out as Rose’s affable boss, Dr. Morgan Desai, who’s an integral part of one of the film’s most gonzo sequences.

Despite its somewhat formulaic plotting, Smile still stands as an excellent showcase for filmmaker Finn, who shows promise in the horror landscape, particularly his knack for creating gnarly visuals and ratcheting up an uneasy feeling of dread. If anything, it’s great to see that a major studio, no less, has given this little non-franchise horror flick such first-class treatment. Smile should be enough to make any genre fan’s day a little happier.

3.5 / 5 – Great

Reviewed by Dan Cachia (Mr. Movie)

Smile is released through Paramount Pictures Australia