From Gwynplaine’s disfigured visage in 1928’s The Man Who Laughs to Jack Torrance’s hideous grin in The Shining, and even more recently Pennywise’s leering grimace in It, the smile has played a longstanding and often terrifying role in horror cinema. So why not make a whole movie based around that stretching of the facial muscles, which can become a death’s-head rictus just as easily as an expression of happiness?
Writer/director Parker Finn seems to have hit upon that very notion with his feature film debut, Smile, which is an expansion of Finn’s 2020 short film, “Laura Hasn’t Slept.” The result is a movie that sustains a remarkably unnerving aura of dread and claustrophobia throughout its nearly two-hour running time and provides some genuinely terrifying sequences, even if it pads itself with a number of jump scares and borrows liberally from several other significant horror outings.
Sosie Bacon (daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick) stars as Dr. Rose Cotter, an emergency psychiatric therapist whose new patient, Laura (Caitlin Stasey, reprising her role from Finn’s original short), claims that she’s being stalked by a terrible presence that manifests itself as embodiments of other people—some she knows, some she doesn’t—that only she can see.
Suddenly screaming that the presence is in the room, Laura collapses into screeching despair. It doesn’t seem to last. In the time it takes for Rose to call for help, Laura has stood back up, and now with a savage smile affixed to her face. It never breaks, even as Laura cuts her own throat open.
Rose, who was just a child when her mother took her own life, is understandably shaken by the incident and told to take some time off by her supervisor (Kal Penn). But it’s not long before Rose begins to experience the same kinds of visions and apparitions that Laura saw, while her mental well-being is questioned by her fiancé (Jessie T. Usher), her own therapist (Robin Weigert), and her stay-at-home-mom sister (Gillian Zinser). As her visions increase in intensity and even bleed into her life as acts of physical violence, Rose turns to an ex-boyfriend who’s a detective (Kyle Gallner, last seen earlier this year in Scream) to help her find out what’s happening.
Without giving too much of the game away, horror fans (even some casual ones) will be able to spot the silo of films in which Smile situates itself. This includes such illustrious members as The Ring, Pulse, a bit of Bird Box, and a heaping of It Follows.
But while the influences may be easy to spot, and make some of the plot machinations obvious to diehards, Smile still succeeds on the basis of Finn’s total control over the tone of the film, buttressed in no small part by Bacon’s emotionally wrenching performance, Charlie Sarroff’s unsettling cinematography (although we wondered at one point if Rose ever turned on any lights in her house), and especially Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s score, a disquieting mix of electronics and musique concrete.
On the downside, Finn relies a bit too much on jump scares, some earned, but others merely gratuitous. It unfortunately undermines some of the atmosphere he conjures up in the rest of the movie. There are also one or two scenes where Rose is carrying actual evidence in her hands to make a case for what she is saying is happening to her, but curiously never even attempts to lay it out to the people who could help her.
Nevertheless, there is an internal logic and consistency to Smile that, frankly, puts it head and shoulders above the fall’s other buzzed about studio horror release, the wildly overrated Barbarian. That film begins with an intriguing first act and legitimately surprising switcheroo before degenerating into a series of astoundingly stupid character choices and unexplored themes.
Those one or two less insulting instances that we mentioned earlier aside, Smile doesn’t indulge in the kind of dumb character actions that can quickly take one out of so many genre efforts. The menace that stalks Rose and other victims also nicely aligns with her own character arc (and again, strong work here from Bacon, who makes you believe in Rose’s disorientation and fraying nerves), and with the film’s underlying themes of unexamined trauma and grief.
In other words, with a month still to go before Halloween, horror fans have a lot to Smile about this week. Parker Finn’s debut is the real deal and pegs him as a genre filmmaker to watch.
Smile opens in theaters this Friday, Sept. 30.