I watch a lot of horror movies. From old to new, from spooky ghosts to gory zombies. I have a lot of fun with the scary things genre, as I think do most horror fans. I can count on one hand the number of movies I have seen in a theater that have not just given me a chill, not just made me jump, but that thoroughly unnerved me to my core, had me watching from through my fingers, and that left me unsettled and shaken for hours, days after. Friends, the latest of these is Smile, the feature debut of writer-director Parker Finn.
You’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the marketing. Smile tested so well for Paramount that the studio bumped it up from streaming service original to theatrical release. But if you think the movie is nothing but a series of people with scary, evil grins, you’re very wrong. It’s much more clever, much more frightening, and ultimately more uncannily disturbing than even those upsetting trailer images would have you believe.
The film follows Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), a young psychologist working at a hospital psych ward. She has a lovely house and a fiancé (Jesse T. Usher), but she can’t sleep and works tons of overtime. We learn from the beginning that when she was a child, her mother overdosed. Rose has never forgiven herself for that. Just as she’s about to finally leave for the day, she takes on one more patient. Laura (Caitlin Stasey) is absolutely terrified. She says some thing that wears people’s faces with a evil, exaggerated grin is out to get her. Only she can see it. Moments later, Laura convulses and when Rose calls for help, she sees Laura staring at her, with a huge smile. Laura then kills herself in front of Rose.
Naturally this is all sorts of traumatizing, but quickly Rose begins experiencing horrifying visions, missing time, and dreams that feel real. She suspects that she, too, like her patient and many people before her, have fallen under the thrall of some demonic presence. No one believes her, except eventually her police detective ex-boyfriend (Kyle Gallner). Either way, no one who has been Smiled has ever survived more than a week.
So much about Smile works to perfection to maximize terror and dread. The opening sequence, with Laura that makes up a lot of the movie’s marketing, is a perfect short film in and of itself. Finn’s penchant for slow panning shots across nothing before finally revealing something scary means every moment has the potential to frighten. Within that, he also peppers in plenty of jump scares that don’t feel cheap. I know some people are against jump scares across the board, but Rose is meant to be on edge the whole time. She’s traumatized and it seeps into her every waking moment. That is incredibly tough to pull off effectively, but Bacon’s amazing performance and the cinematography and music heighten everything. Especially the music. Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s score is bone chilling and contributes so much to the movie’s icky feeling.
Jump scares are always effective, at the very least to make the audience jump. That isn’t why Smile works so well, and worked so well on me. Finn exploits a very particular fear: one of the uncanny. Things that seem normal, average, and even safe, but have an unexplained otherness to them. Every shot of the seemingly idyllic spaces Rose inhabits suddenly have an ominous, foreboding presence. Liminal spaces that seem at once everyday and off. And Finn fills those spaces with the most uncanny thing of all: distorted human faces.
In much the same type of uncanny horror mangaka Junji Ito delivers, Smile shows us grotesque perversions of a smile, seemingly the sign of happiness and warmth. Ito gives us these full-page, hyper detailed images, which is unique to manga. Finn manages to give us that same effect by having the smiler look directly into camera, into Rose’s POV. The fact he manages to do this with minimal CGI or special effects (except for the obvious) is especially impressive. It’s just the actors. Anyone’s face could have this rictus grin, with hate behind the eyes.
Finn also ties the uncanny to the very, very real. The running theme of mental health, of people living their regular, “perfect” lives and hiding from their loved ones’ mental health needs. Each time Rose confides in someone close to her only to be met with “you’re just tired” or “you sound crazy,” it stings anyone who has dealt with depression or anxiety in the past. Childhood trauma looms large. I think the film does a great job drawing the horror out of these situations and not hiding behind the supernatural for everything.
So I can’t say whether or not Smile will work for you the same way it did for me. It happened to check every box of things that get under my skin. I cannot say I enjoyed the experience, but days later I’m still thinking about it, still living in the unsettled feeling it gave me. It’s just wall-to-wall dread peppered with moments of sheer, unambiguous fright. That’s what you want from a horror movie, isn’t it?
Smile hits theaters September 30.
Kyle Anderson is the Senior Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Instagram and Letterboxd.