Synopsis – After witnessing a bizarre, traumatic incident involving a patient, Dr. Rose Cotter starts experiencing frightening occurrences that she can’t explain. Rose must confront her troubling past in order to survive and escape her horrifying new reality.
My Take – While a genuinely happy face can bring delight to anyone’s gloomy day, this latest horror adds an uncanny creepiness to the whole situation by showing how it is genuinely scary to be on the receiving end of an unprovoked grin.
An expansion of his 11-minute short film Laura Can’t Sleep, the feature debut of writer-director Parker Finn shares similar DNA with the likes of It Follows (2014), The Grudge (2004), The Ring (2002), and others. But what this sadistically effective horror lacks in originality, it makes up for with scares that are effectively calibrated to earn your respect and send cold shivers almost every step of the way.
For the most part, the scares rely upon clever placement of horrifying imagery and sound, and a lot of it truly unnerved me every time anyone so much as smirked. Most importantly, this smart, effective horror works as an uneasy study on trauma and mines psychological demons that can even overwhelm even the most stable ones.
Add to that a committed central performance from the increasingly gaunt and haunted Sosie Bacon (daughter of Kevin Bacon), and a jarring, tortured score, the end results with a solidly scary feature that is well-written and intense.
The story follows Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), a clinical psychologist who has dedicated her life to caring for the most damaged members of society. Particularly, at a hospital ER in which patients are invariably at their most violent and troubled. All stemming from her own childhood trauma which she has effectively suppressed with elaborate professional calm.
That is until she meets Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey), a deeply disturbed young woman who was brought in, wretched with fear and lacking sleep, telling Rose about a hideously smiling demon that stalks her, inhabiting the bodies of various people: some as her friends, some as random strangers. To Rose’s horror, Laura takes a piece of shattered crockery and carves an arcing crescent into her own throat.
And does so while smiling, a deranged, flesh-stretching gash of a grin. Soon she starts to see her own ghoulish smirking figures, and with no one believing her including her own fiancee, Trevor (Jessie T Usher), and her own sister, Holly (Gillian Zinser), Rose is forced to embark on race against time, with the help of Joel (Kyle Gallner), a cop and her former boyfriend, to understand the transferable curse which has latched on to her, a malevolent parasitic presence which feeds on trauma.
On the surface, the film’s premise is a simple one, but there’s a lot more weight to it than initially meets the eye. While the premise appears purely silly and gimmicky, I was shocked that I actually got psychologically wrapped up in the allegorical themes and characterization. Throughout, it’s hard to shake the uneasy feeling of this film. It’s grim and foggy but at the core is the idea that when trauma is passed from person to person it will consume you.
With that in hand, director Parker Finn plays on the idea that most people who suffer through awful events in life will have their past consume them if they don’t confront them. What makes this film smarter is how the antagonist does not only scare Rose. Instead, the antagonist takes advantage of Rose’s trauma and uses it against her while ruining her life.
The best of horror films have antagonists isolating the protagonist and making their lives a living hell, and this film does an excellent job of that while exploring themes of trauma and letting go of it.
Sure, the film may borrow heavily from other horrors, but it certainly brings something unique to the table. Characters twisting their faces into grotesque smiles before killing themselves in shocking, graphic fashion is not the only striking imagery that the film manages to conjure up, even pets aren’t spared director Finn’s wrath. Yes, the mystery isn’t completely satisfying to solve, but the constant moments of jerky jump scares definitely make you feel on edge.
Performance wise, Sosie Bacon is excellent as Rose, with an incredible turn that gets to the heart of mental health anxiety while grounding the sheer hysterics of being pursued by a supernatural entity. Kyle Gallner too gives a solid performance and is equally supported by Jessie T. Usher, Rob Morgan, Robin Weigert, Gillian Zinser and Kal Penn. Though she appears only for a short period, Caitlin Stasey (star of Laura Hasn’t Slept), she leaves a strong impression. On the whole, ‘Smile’ is an effective crowd-pleasing horror that is delightfully unsettling.
Directed – Parker Finn
Rated – R
Run Time – 115 minutes