Review: Smile

SEAL OF APPROVAL

Director: Parker Finn

Stars: Sosie Bacon, Kyle Gallner, Jessie T. Usher

Horror tastes and movements change like the seasons, but even if something recedes from popularity, there’s always the likelihood that it’ll come around again. See, for instance, the slasher movie which bloomed in the late ’70s and early ’80s after the box office smashes of Halloween and Friday the 13th, oversaturated, slumped, only to return anew, first thanks to Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) and then in the wake of David Gordon Green’s own Halloween (2018).

Right now it feels as though we’re witnessing in real time the diminishment of so-called ‘elevated horror’. A contentious term that refers to certain titles that focus on mood and tone to explore externalised themes of trauma. Effectively kickstarted by the success of grief allegory The Babadook, what felt refreshing a decade ago has become, in its own way, predictable, cliché and frankly rather joyless. So what comes after?

Parker Finn’s Smile might not provide the full answer, but it could prove to be the final nail in the coffin of so-called ‘elevated horror’. Dispensing with subtext altogether, his film isn’t a cagey metaphorical chamber piece. It is trauma. Characters discuss it openly (his lead plays a psychotherapist dealing with her own mother’s suicide), while Finn himself throws everything he can at the audience to illicit a flight-or-fight response. I can’t remember the last time a pop horror picture with these themes focused so intently on trying to be scary. Playing as Smile does to the basic tenets of the genre, Finn crashes elevated horror back to the ground floor.

This means a prevalence of jump scares and classic horror movie parlor tricks, but Finn knows his stuff, and makes nearly all of them work thanks to a smartly sustained sense of hysteria. Instead of the quiet/loud seesaw of Insidious and it’s ilk, Smile maintains a near constant edge of derangement, anchored by an exhausting-looking lead performance from Sosie Bacon.

Bacon plays Dr. Rose Cotter, a workaholic whose life crashes down around her when a new patient, Laura (Caitlin Stasey), claims to have some terrible smiling entity attached to her, before carving open her neck right in front of Rose. That very evening Rose starts experiencing the same phenomena that plagued Laura, and her world of science and medicine plunges into disarray.

Smile upends (literally, in a motif borrowed from Midsommar and expanded upon here) a very stable set of values shared by every character in its roster. It takes place in an ordered world of reason, where there is no room for notions of supernatural forces. As Rose confronts her new reality and searches for help, she finds a lot of reliable doors closing. This mirrors society’s narrow view of mental health issues. By the end of the opening act, Rose is a complete mess, and it’s concerning as an audience member to see Bacon go so far so quickly. Where is there left to go?

But, like the fast turn of Jack Nicholson in The Shining, this sense of nippy downward spiral takes the whole picture off of any comfortable axis, allowing Finn to throw set-piece after set-piece at us and never allowing a sense of calm – or even false-calm – to reassert itself. Smile is a ride, but a more effective and enjoyable one that pop horror has sent our way in a good long while (excepting the glorious Malignant). Fittingly, Finn’s picture often smirks at it’s own looniness, and the fledgling director has a way of ending any given seen with a punch, be it a scare or a moment of sly humour.

These aren’t new tricks, but they’re well played and his choices evidence an appreciation for several modern classics. The opening act particularly favours the slow sweeping camera moves of It Follows (even Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s icicle score is reminiscent of Disasterpiece’s) and, as Rose realises her seemingly inevitable fate, Smile imitates the grim deadline narrative of Ring to ratchet up the tension. Having established a maddeningly flexible reality, Finn stretches it with glee. On at least two occasions he barrels us a fake-out that a lesser movie would’ve fumbled. But with pitches coming at us with such velocity, even the messier ones strike hard. And, thanks to that self-aware streak of humour, we’re entertained enough to recognise the gag and play along with it. That’s not as easy to pull off as one might think.

Smile Review: Fantastic Fest 2022 - VitalThrills.com

Come the third act, when Smile backs itself into a corner and you think you’ve seen everything, the gloves come off. Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr. are on hand to provide a visceral final reveal, and if those names are familiar you might’ve seen them in the credits of a number of Alien movies. Special effects and make-up artists, they have a way with monstrous creations that grin mercilessly and so it goes again here. Employing their work for him, Finn all but dares the audience to flinch, to look away. It’s pummelling.

This go-for-broke intensity feels like the work of a newcomer genuinely swinging for the fences in case he never gets a second shot. It’s a little manic, a little desperate, but dammit he’s a natural. One only hopes that he hasn’t used up all his momentum in this one guns-blazing effort.

So, yes, Smile has drive. Bags of it. But it backs it up with a well-constructed narrative and a carefully, sympathetically considered lead character. In the process of telling its tale, Smile feathers in a deeper understanding of who Rose is. Details like her recurring paranoia regarding telephones and even her choice to become a doctor feel weighted with reason and forethought once the story comes to a close. And Bacon anchors all of it in a high-pitched but constantly human set of responses.

It also has plenty to say, not least about how pain, trauma and unhappiness are stigmatised in a society obsessed with their opposite. The constant need to smile here, to show the world a pleasant facade, takes as much of a toll on Rose as her relentless foe. Finn rejects coyness, leave the elevator at the ground floor and deal with your shit, terrifying as it may be.

While it may be dismissed as derivative because of how it wears its influences on its sleeve, Smile reaches to better its predecessors, and that’s some admirable ambition. Whether it succeeds will be up to audiences, but this feels like one that is going to be looked back on with great fondness once the dust has settled.

With a shudder, and a smile.

9 of 10

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