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Polygon is on the scene during Fantastic Fest 2022, reporting on new horror, sci-fi and action movies making their way to theaters and streaming. This review was published in conjunction with the Fantastic Fest premiere of the film.
Parker Finn’s debut horror film Smile is carefully calibrated to do different things for different viewers. For someone not well versed in horror, it’s an efficient and effective scare fest, full of big, startling fears and freaky, abrasive tension.
But it works very differently for a savvy horror crowd that can recognize the ways Finn replays other popular horror movies, and can predict where the story is going from the get-go. Smile often winks at the audience and offers a silent You know what comes next, right? You can see how bad this can get, can’t you? It’s easy to see at any time what Finn is doing with his characters and what he’s focusing the story on – and that seems to be completely intentional. Yet it is never easy to shake off the impact when the promised horrors arrive.
Working from a previous short film, 2020 Laura didn’t sleepFinn’s script takes almost no time to establish who his protagonist is before her world begins to fall apart. Therapist Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) works in the psychiatric emergency department of a hospital and is used to seeing people in crisis and talking them out. Then she encounters a badly shaken patient who claims she is being chased by some sort of evil entity that no one else can see, a creature with a horrifying smile that torments her by appearing in the guise of people she knows.
The story sounds like a paranoid delusion – and when Rose tries to talk to other people about the shape-shifting, invisible, evil curse creature, it sounds like she has paranoid delusions too. “I am not crazy‘ she tells her sweet-natured, kind fiancée Trevor (Jessie T. Usher), her frail older sister Holly (Gillian Zinser), and her former patrician therapist Madeline (Robin Weigert, in a role light years away from her turn as dead wood‘s Calamity Jane). But Rose can’t find a way to sound convincing when she says it, especially in a world that’s cynical and unsympathetic to the mentally ill.
Smile is often a gimmicky, even corny, horror movie, brimming with so many jump scares that the sheer pile borders on laughable. Finn uses abrupt, loud beeps and brutally quick cuts to make viewers whine and recoil at things as mundane as Rose biting into a hamburger or ripping off a hangnail. But no matter how exaggerated the legitimate fears pile up, they are surprising and compelling. The editing and music are impressively tuned for maximum impact as the slow-burning tension dissipates with an abrupt, ugly surprise. That makes everything Smile an efficient ride, albeit an unusually unrelenting one.
But Finn gets the equivalent of a magician showing the audience how the trick is done, then does it so effectively that it still looks like magic. His writing patterns Smile after The ring, in which Rose experiences an incendiary incident, discovers she has a deadly deadline, brings in her reluctant but soulful ex to help her, and then investigates the phenomenon, with disturbing results. But where did other films follow? The ring‘s beats just felt distracted (including several of its own clunky sequels), Smile uses the familiarity of the story to set up anticipation. If Rose sees a possible solution to her problem, Smile invites viewers to ponder the logical endpoint of her discovery, and wonder if she’ll make the same selfish choice Naomi Watts’ character made in The ring – and if so, who will suffer.
likewise, Smile‘s setup broadly mimics those in It follows, where a threat was passed virally from person to person, inexorably made its way to the next victim, wearing different faces, turning everyone in the protagonist’s life into a potential threat. But again, instead of feeling like a copycat, Smile uses the familiarity to heighten the sense of danger, until viewers can’t trust anyone they see onscreen is human—which neatly puts them in Rose’s ever-disintegrating mindset.
The human element in Smile is calibrated as carefully as the jump scares, in ways designed to alarm the public if they don’t flinch. Finn fills the story with vulnerable potential victims: Longtime horror fans know they’re concerned if it turns out Rose has a beloved cat, or Holly has a sweet 7-year-old boy, or Rose’s helpful ex Joel (Kyle Gallner) is sensitive, frank and still in love with her. (Kal Penn also pops up as Rose’s supervisor, in a role that seems specifically designed to be a target for chaos.) And the way Rose suppresses a childhood trauma, which she shares with Holly in part and is partly the reason for so much tension between them, creates a particularly rich emotional ground. Smile is almost painfully efficient at preparing for disaster: it’s bare-bones storytelling, with each new character or element designed to amplify the sense of dread about who is likely to die, and how badly.
The central theme of the film also contributes to the sense of fear. From the moment a police officer declines his responsibility to investigate a grotesque death by writing off the victim with an arrogant “She sounds fucking crazy to me!”, it’s clear that at heart, Smile deals with the stigma surrounding mental illness and the urge to fire or demonize people who deal with it.
Finn finds fertile ground in the vast and potentially unbridgeable chasm between patients and even well-meaning spectators. The public’s sympathy probably lies with Rose, who lives with a fear she can’t fight. But it’s also easy to see why other people would be uncomfortable trying to deal with a woman who behaves erratically and even dangerously, while blaming some sort of incomprehensible fear demon.
A deeper version of this film would delve even further into the ambiguity about Rose’s situation, with her lingering on whether she’s really just having a psychotic episode brought on by stress, overwork, and legitimate trauma. Finn chooses to avoid that path, making it pretty obvious that something supernatural is at work. It’s a reasonable choice to put in a movie devoted to piling fear on top of fear, to have audiences anticipate the worst that could happen, while genuinely caring about the people who might suffer if it did. happens. Yet it robs Smile of potential subtlety.
But there’s nothing wrong with a horror movie designed more to terrify an audience than to play games with them. As a writer-director, Finn seems to know that people can go to horror movies for a variety of reasons, some more intellectually and some more emotionally. Either way, he does an impressive job of making sure they all come away satisfied and at least a little shocked.
Smile opens in theaters on September 30.