By Matthew Moorcroft
- Directed by Parker Finn
- Starring Sosie Bacon, Kyle Gallner, Jessie T. Usher, Robin Weigert
Just in time for Halloween, Smile is given to us courtesy of newcomer Parker Finn. Initially intended to head to streaming, Smile played so well during test screenings that Paramount saw theatrical potential for the film, and in a year where high concept horror seems to be flourish – just this past month we had the daring and thrilling Barbarian – this felt like a no-brainer decision. After all, it’s nearly October, and spooky season is upon us. What could go wrong?
Not a whole lot it seems. Initial marketing for Smile wasn’t exactly impressive to say the least, prioritizing the premise moreso then actual meat of the production itself. Smiling in of itself isn’t exactly scary on paper outside of a couple of creepy moments, and hedging your bets on a whole premise which is “woman sees creepy people smiling at her” seems like one of those jokes premises from a game of Mad Libs. How exactly do you pull something like this off? Make it about trauma, it seems, which is the go to premise for horror it seems nowadays. Still, it’s an effective angle for a reason, and Smile is indeed, first and foremost, effective.
From expertly laid jump scares to an effectively creepy score, Smile is trying to make you as uncomfortable as possible and on that end it’s immensely successful. Dripping in atmosphere and tension from beginning to end, Smile is pretty unrelentless for a mainstream horror film, particularly in regards to tone. This is some grim, bleak stuff, and the scares here are so effective it’s hard to deny the visceral reaction upon leaving the theater. The final minutes of this in particular are just stellar stuff, with some full on creature feature level effects work and tons of gory goodness. If you want a movie with a full crowd, this is the movie to get a full crowd to.
The actual meat of this thing is a little bit more standard fare, albeit it’s quality standard fare. J-horror vibes are the name of the game here, particularly Ringu, and a dash of It Follows as well to round up it’s influences. In fact, Smile borrows a ton from prior horror like it to the point where it almost feels a hodge podge of every major horror film of the past 5 years mixed into a stew. There is even a bit of Hereditary here, but if you are going to crib, crib from the best, and thankfully Smile has more then enough interesting angles to help it standout.
For starters, it’s focus on trauma is less about the effects of trauma then it is about the cyclical nature of it and how it eats itself. Traumatic things happen to somebody, causes them to lash out, trauma passed to another person, rinse and repeat. This visualization, and commitment to the bit in terms of making it so much about trauma that it overwhelms everything else, is probably what ends up pushing Smile towards being as successful as it is. Sosie Bacon’s equally committed lead performance is also responsible, especially as she’s forced into some really difficult places for her character here and manages to keep herself believable. The story also never demonizes those with mental illness despite the chances too, instead also portraying them with sympathy, if not understanding.
And for a first time director, Finn is remarkably talented and is able to really flex here. Some really amazing production design and cinematography permeate through this thing, and the great, crackling sound design keeps everything creepy and uneasy. It’s clear that if this had gone to streaming it would have been a disservice as they really poured their all into this production wise and I’m really curious to see with Finn does next as he moves onto bigger projects.
That is if Paramount wants to do a sequel to the film, which is increasingly likely as the film does incredibly well with audiences. Still though, as a new possible horror franchise start and a standalone film, this is good stuff, and a great time with a large crowd. It’s a bit long in the tooth, yeah, and it cribs from better films, but who cares when it’s this fun? Just smile your through it.