by Paul Deeter
In 2016 a smash hit horror flick titled Lights Out hit the big screen after the debut of the director's original short of the same name in 2013. The director David F. Sandberg, who would go on to direct crowd-pleaser Shazam!, entered the mainstream with Lights Out as his first full-length feature. Not only earning 148.9 million dollars in profit of a budget of under 5 million dollars; the film was also somewhat favorable with critics at around a 76% consensus. The reason I bring up Lights Out is not just because 2022's Smile is a directorial debut of large potential for director Parker Finn (who also adapted the film off of a short titled Laura Hasn't Slept) but its stirring to be a successful feature for Finn and one I had very low expectations for. Listen. It's a strong year for horror and I believe in the law of diminishing returns for horror films. This is of course an unfair assessment, but the year 2022 has been unusually strong for horror films. Pearl and Barbarian are both films I intended to review had I not taken too long to see either. By the time Barbarian was trending I finally saw it and was wowed by its originality and twist. And Pearl of course blew me away for its lead performance by Mia Goth. But I try to get the upper-hand on new releases of horror, only taking into account the early critical consensus of some of these releases. Rotten Tomatoes lets up their critical embargo earlier and earlier, and its hard not to say for example Don't Worry Darling, get a bias from where critics are coming from. But more and more recently as the law of diminishing returns proves silly, critical consensus's are becoming arguably more groupthink and horror movies are increasing in quality.
The initial trailers for Smile had me worried that Smile was going to be another gimmick horror flick. In an age of horror movies titled like The Bye Bye Man, the attempt to come up with an original catchphrase or spooky character idea to brand a horror movie is all too frequent. That being said, Smile puts on a happy face and uses its "gimmick" in a successfully effective kind of creepiness. Smile is a 2022 small budget release featuring Sosie Bacon as a therapist who witnesses a traumatic incident in her office and would subsequently be haunted by it emotionally and rather literally. The "smile" effect the movie uses to haunt the lead Dr. Rose Cotter is very simple and can be quite creepy for most of its uses. A creepy extra smiling in the background of a mental breakdown scene involving Rose adds an It Follows effect subtly to the impending dread of the character.
Its easy to think of It Follows from 2014 with its "anyone could be the killer" trope in utilizing background characters in its building suspense. It Follows follows the story of a young woman who has sex and is cursed in the process; her sexual partner is manipulating a "curse" that kills whoever doesn't pass it on to their next sexual partner. And the curse continues on and on. The dreading horror here builds with every long and wide shot in the film, when we can't help but wonder which background character might be harboring the killer who is involved in hunting the cursed one. Each victim is unfortunately left to the randomness of the killers who could literally be anyone. In Smile, the incident that curses Rose is a brutal suicide by a frightened girl who claims she was being followed and hunted by smiling presences. Therefore, the result of her traumatic viewing of a suicide led the character of Rose to fall into the same fate. And with Rose we have our hunted protagonist.
Rose is not just left with the curse of the victim she sees so horribly killed, but the lingering mostly unspoken guilt of her mother's suicide as well. Her witnessing or perhaps lack of prevention of her mom's death haunts her in its own way emotionally. It leads her into the role of a therapist (who also sees a therapist) is a way of coping and helping others cope with their trauma as well. And trauma is a big element of the film and its most effective one. Trauma exists not just as a tool to spring forth the curse of the suicides but also the theme of guilt that is carried when a loved one commits suicide and a family member or friend is helpless to prevent it. That's what the film does best. Getting back to the "smile" lets talk about what works and doesn't. Smiling can be scary, there's no doubt that some people have a creepy smile. Bill Skarsgaard for one, (Pennywise the Clown in It) has a very unnerving smile, both in makeup and out of it. Most of the smiling folks in this film do have scary smiles, but there's a few unfortunately laughable moments of hokey horror attempting to look spooky at face level. One can't think of It Follows as great as it is, how it mostly works when the creepiness of a looming stranger enters the scene, but this movie also falls into groaningness in a few of these sequences.
Smile also doesn't quite have the trick that the videotape in the horror classic The Ring or Ringu originally does. It works the same way, the curse is carried on to each of those who can't figure out how to defeat it, but The Ring is much scarier in its graphic and original imagery portrayed on the tape itself. This film doesn't particularly have any obscurities in its imagery, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have its share of tricks. Smile works best when utilizing the gore it is allowed in its R-rating. Hallucinations effect Rose and cause her to see hanging heads, faces being ripped off and other horrific delusions. The movie really does a great job with the originality of its scares, and also builds itself into some twisty horror sequences as well. Of course its no surprise that certain characters are doomed to die, but the way it plays itself into the plot can be quite surprising at times. And the movie makes sure to always play by its own rules. Any horror movie that can keep up with its own premise and rules is already a success, no matter how scary it gets.
I'd argue that Smile is a horror film without too many scares. There are plenty of "jumpscares" because no horror movie past 2010 is going to go without the sudden noise and soundtrack spikes that lead audiences to literally jump out of their seats at times. But the actual creepiness of Smile is not all there, and part of it is just how much is shown in the trailer. I encourage you to see Smile without watching its blatantly spoilerific trailer, as it ruined some of the biggest scares for me. I don't blame Smile for not being as scary to me as it could have been, and some will truly be haunted by the movie's use of trauma as a crux and Ring-esque use of surprises that play by all the right rules. I took away a refreshing and surprising experience. Just as I doubted the trailer for Lights Out which proved to be one of my favorite horror movies of that decade, I discouraged myself to be excited for Smile. But it wasn't enough to keep me from seeing one of the most refreshing and visually rewarding horror movies of 2022.