As we enter the latter half of 2022, I cannot help but reflect on the diverse quality of horror representation we’ve had this year. We’ve certainly had the good in the cosmic-glazed western Nope and in Cronenberg’s body-horror restoration in Crimes of the Future. We’ve also had plenty of bad representation in the form of the sequel-baited return to Scream and the flat-out forgettable Spiderhead. So as we progress through the spooky month of October, it is only natural to ponder the eerie and hair-raising features out in theaters at the moment. Amongst the barrage of content out, there is a movie that champions its scares and wears its unapologetic silliness on its sleeve; it's a little face-melter called Smile.
When esteemed doctor Rose Cutter (Sosie Bacon) finds herself in the midst of a patient's psychotic breakdown-turned-brutal suicide, she soon begins experiencing her own strange and upsetting phenomenons, hinting that a much darker force is at play.
I’ll be honest right up front: Smile lacks major originality or even a sliver of nuance, coming off as, for a lengthy branch of its runtime, an updated 2022 cover of Ringu (1998). The Japanese horror classic's characters are consumed by fear by the premonition and anticipation of their demise – a ticking time bomb element reworked for spine-chilling effect. It’s an ideal horror device that quickly became a phenomenon in the genre.
Smile uses miniscule detail thrust of plot and story progression, but instead of a cursed videotape that haunts our heroes, it’s the real-time spectatorship of suicide, a story progression that initially caught me off guard. However, that element begins to unravel somewhat when one contextualizes the grander scope of the film's meaning.
Our protagonist, a specialist in the field of mental health, progresses through a string of similar cases throughout the film, orbiting around the initial tragedy and watching as more people self-destruct. The devastation of these crises leads her own mental health to slip as more truth is learned and the violence is upped in intensity. To inject themes of mental illness and disguise them as the basis of scares within a relatively smaller budget psychological-paranormal paranoia drama? Such a design definitely reaches for a different horror angle.
Smile not only heavily borrows plot articulation from previous horror films, but it also (respectfully) tries its hand at replicating the same essence and sensibilities from other horror flicks in a visual sense. Although, as mentioned before, it sorely lacks originality, it is neat to see a newer genre filmmaker so clearly inspired by the styles of James Wan, Gore Verbinski, and even David Robert Mitchell to some extent. Director Parker Finn pursues an assortment of camera trickery to keep the storytelling in Smile alive.
The movie dances in trashy spectacle from its very cold open. One of the more unapologetically mean-spirited horrors from recent memory, impressing horror junkies with frights and gore alike within its opening ten minutes, the film has a precedent urge to up its scares with each new scene. There are plenty to be had within the under-two-hour runtime, titillating the audience's goosebumps every five minutes.
As the runtime progresses, Smile seems to find a mutual understanding of what audiences crave from a modern scare-a-ton. Smile’s scares are generous and regular, and although the plot somewhat loses the interest of itself in its hunt-and-find procedural tendencies, it never loses focus on what it truly needs to do: be creepy. Just ask the audience I watched this with – there was plenty of screaming, cheering and even at one point, an audience member threw their popcorn into the air! Are movies back?
Beyond its limitations – its lack of idiosyncrasies, plot motivation, and occasional pacing issues – Smile manages to hold its own in its own world of silly terror. It’s the latest new shiny toy in our goldfish memory mindset movie minds that’s surely going to make you jump once or twice, resulting in a perfectly effective October release. Did I mention that a dead cat is given as a birthday present? Absolute winner! Smile is a return to the sleek trash epic that modern horror is slowly morphing back into, and I guess I can say: “I’m all here for it!”