There’s a trend going on in horror cinema that’s been happening for several years now – the exploration of past traumas and how they inform the present, often done metaphorically. That movie monster or thing that creeps the shadows of the room isn’t just a monster – it’s something horrific from the past that rears its ugly head in the present.
It was inevitable today where we examine our lives under a microscope, looking for clues as to why we behave the way we do. The pandemic, if anything, caused us to internalize ourselves even more. Perhaps there’s a key to unlock something cathartic within us through this past trauma. Movies like Hereditary did this exceptionally well.
I’m not against this kind of genre exploration as a rule – it gives movies, the horror genre especially, a much-needed context and deepens and strengthens the effectiveness of the work. These are valid subjects for a horror film. But some do it better than others. Hereditary is probably the Citizen Kane equivalent of these kinds of films.
Smile doesn’t quite get to that level of resonance, but it’s still an effective, and at times nasty piece of work. It’s always difficult to make a new kind of movie monster, especially one with the thematic weight that this one must carry, but Smile pulls it off.
This movie is a sequel of sorts to director Parker Finn’s short film Laura Hasn’t Slept, in which some supernatural tormentor seems to be pursuing Caitlin Stasey’s Laura. Laura returns here to the office of Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), a trauma psychologist with some dark corners of her past. When Laura kills herself in front of Rose, it begins a monstrous chain of events that Rose must navigate and solve if she isn’t going to meet a horrific end herself.
No one believes Rose as this mysterious entity pursues her and makes her question her reality – not her sister Holly (Gillian Zinser), her fiancé Trevor (Jessie T. Usher), or her former police officer boyfriend Joel (Kyle Gallner). Rose must explore her past if she is to find a way to survive the present.
Finn expertly ratchets the tension throughout – we can feel the vise tighten around Rose, and Bacon is more than capable of doing the heavy lifting required to make Rose’s predicament believable.
Smile doesn’t shy away from gruesome gore when it needs to, and when the scares happen there aren’t many red herrings, which I always appreciate – it’s easy to make an audience jump with a sound cue from the score, but when you fill that jump with disturbing imagery it gives the audience an uneasiness and fear, and there are quite a few moments like that in Smile. This one will do well with a crowd.
The creature effects from Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr (the Alien franchise) are especially effective – we don’t see much of the entity, but when we do it’s suitably terrifying. It’s nice to see these guys can still bring it when it comes to great scary monsters.
But an effective movie monster relies on the context in which it’s seen to give it much of its power, and Finn effectively fills that context and Sosie Bacon gives us a heroine to root for.
This one grew on me on the ride home – a lot of horror right now is addressing past trauma, so much so that it may be quickly becoming a cliché, but I think it’s ripe subject matter and appropriate for the age we live in.
Horror has always been the genre at the forefront of exploring these things that make us fear and jump and since we’ve all, in some way, experienced trauma, especially these last few years, I would expect to see even more films in the genre examining this.
Some will do it effectively, some won’t. Smile does it effectively. Some of it gets derivative, but that’s the nature of the genre – what good is the jump scare if we don’t laugh a little at it afterwards? That’s part of the fun.
I did admire how bleak the film gets in the third act – Parker Finn seems to enjoy throwing us into a deep hole and filling it up with dirt, seeing if we can scramble our way out, and for that to work you have to give us a protagonist we care about, and Bacon does that very well.
Smile doesn’t have the perverse joys of a movie like Barbarian where we laugh at the situation as much as we can scream at its scares, but Smile has an ominous tone of its own that audiences may find difficult to shake.
I anticipate it will do well this Halloween season – horror right now is enjoying a kind of renaissance and it’s nice to see that after three years of our own horrible trauma that we can sit for a movie and still be scared. Smile brings the scares, the meaning, and the context, and I found myself thinking about it more than I thought on the ride home. And really, that’s all it takes.
SMILE REVIEW SCORE: 7 OUT OF 10
Paramount Pictures will release Smile in theaters on September 30, 2022. The film is rated R for strong violent content and grisly images, and language.