Mental health at center of horror film
Smile is an elemental chiller that sinks its teeth in and never lets go
Capping off an uncommonly strong month for cinematic horror, the frightfest Smile stars Sosie Bacon as Dr. Rose Cotter, a psychologist who’s been putting too many hours into her job at a New Jersey-based psychiatric ward. Right before ending her shift one day, she meets with disturbed Ph.D. student Laura (Caitlin Stasey), who says she is being stalked by an evil grinning figure that takes the appearance of other people. The appointment turns tragic and leaves Rose irrevocably shaken, to the growing concern of her fiancé, Trevor (Jessie T. Usher), and her boss Dr. Desai (Kal Penn). Rose begins seeing the malevolent entity that Laura described, prompting her to go to her policeman ex-boyfriend Joel (Kyle Gallner) to find a chain connecting these “smiling” sightings that are now plaguing her.
Smile effectively combines two horror reliable subgenres: transmissible curse films like It Follows and The Ring — going further back, it most resembles the supernatural cop thriller Fallen — and personified trauma movies like Hereditary and The Night House. It also leans on a rich history of creepy cinematic smiles for chills, the most haunting of which still belongs to Conrad Veidt’s character from the silent picture The Man Who Laughs. Adapting from his short film Laura Hasn’t Slept, writer/director Parker Finn takes the material seriously but does have some fun playing with the audience’s expectations. This is a movie that shamelessly includes jump scares, but, naturally, Finn’s hope is that their placement may still surprise you. When the camera stays on Cotter as she opens her refrigerator, will there be someone behind the door when she closes it?
As an overworked doctor already at her wit’s end before the film’s inciting event, Bacon is terrific at putting us in the mindset of someone whose grip on reality is slowly becoming more tenuous. Her screen presence and nervy resolve while being terrorized by a distorted-faced bogeyman remind me of Neve Campbell, who returned to the Scream franchise again this year in the series’s fifth installment. As compared to the Scream films, the terror in Smile is more psychological in nature, since the characters around Cotter can’t see the horrifying creature that impersonates her friends and family. She reaches out to people she thinks she can trust, like her sister Holly (Gillian Zinser) and her therapist Dr. Northcott (Robin Weigert), but there’s no telling when the shapeshifting smirker could rear its smiling head.
Mental health is a subject that horror films have addressed responsibly and not-so-responsibly over the years — more recently, I would put 2022’s Abandoned in the latter category — but Smile builds it into the narrative sensitively and intelligently.
As a child, Cotter witnessed her wayward mother overdose on unnamed prescription pills, leaving an indelible mark on her even as she treats patients going through the same sort of mental illnesses that afflicted her mom. The way that the film personifies the cyclical nature of traumatic events is disturbing and shocking at times, but doesn’t feel exploitative of these characters or their issues. The people around Rose who know about her relationship with her mother assume that she’s succumbing to genetically-passed psychosis, and Finn leaves the door open enough to suspect that they could be right.
Shot by director of photography Charlie Sarroff largely in shallow focus and with colors that look like they’ve had the life drained out of them, Smile is an admirably bleak affair that nevertheless finds purpose in its protagonist’s quest for vindication. Finn also sprinkles in typically innocuous smiles, like those found on families from vintage print ads or found on the lower end of the Wong-Baker pain scale, to perpetually unnerving effect.
Being Finn’s full-length feature debut, the film could have benefitted from more judicious editing, but in general, the pacing felt just right for a movie with a sadistically patient antagonist that waits for the right moment to strike.
Beaming with a strong central performance and a potent concept, Smile is an elemental chiller that sinks its teeth in and never lets go.
New movies coming this weekend
Opening in theaters is Amsterdam, a mystery comedy starring Christian Bale and Margot Robbie involving three friends, a doctor, a nurse, and a lawyer, who become the prime suspects in the murder of a U.S. senator in the 1930s.
Also playing in theaters is Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile, a musical comedy starring Shawn Mendes and Javier Bardem adapted from the popular children’s book about a family moving into a new home, where they find a singing saltwater crocodile living in the attic.
Premiering on Hulu is Hellraiser, a supernatural horror remake starring Odessa A’zion and Jamie Clayton about a young woman struggling with addiction who comes into possession of an ancient puzzle box, unaware that its purpose is to summon evil extradimensional beings.