Some longtime readers might remember me as a man who has been growing weary of this trend of “elevated horror” movies, lately. While I am more than happy to encourage ambition and the pursuit of adult themes, good lord, can filmmakers please just make movies about bad relationships and societal misogyny if that’s what they’re actually interested in telling stories about? Instead of dressing them up in tedious “arthouse horror” trappings that aren’t scary so much as just unpleasant-looking content fodder for the internet thinkpiece-churning factories?
Well, it appears that Parker Finn has heard my prayer and answered it in the form of Smile, a lean, nasty little piece of work concerned with nothing more and nothing less than scaring the hell out of you in a theater. To my delight, it succeeded, precisely because the film zeroed in on the fundamentals with little regard for things that so often trip up other filmmakers who feel like they have to prove their movie is “more than just horror.” As if “just horror” is something to be ashamed of.
Right off the bat, Smile starts on a good foot by kicking off its main story straight away. After a brief, fragmented flashback hinting at the traumatic past (put a pin in that) of its protagonist, psychiatrist Rose Cotter (played by Sosie Bacon, who apparently pursued an acting career against the wishes of her parents Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick) sits down with a disheveled and pallid-looking college student rambling about her Week From Hell, punctuated by hideous visions of her looming violent death and being stalked by a creature that can take the form of any human that only identifies itself by its creepy, toothy smile. And then, before Rose can even process what she’s saying, the student flashes her own creepy smile and commits suicide in gruesome right then and there in front of her.
Cue title card! No drawn-out prologue, no dilly-dallying, just pushing us into the deep end of the bloody pool.
Now, you may have read that summary of the opening scene and are thinking to yourself, “But I’ve already seen dozens of movies with a similar setup.” And you’d be correct. Smile gets no points for originality. Zero. In fact, the film’s premise could very easily be summarized as “What if The Ring was also It Follows?” and though I can’t in good conscience say it’s as good as either of those two movies, it makes up for that by being very nearly as effective as those movies and maybe even a little bit scarier, depending on where you set that particular goalpost. The execution of its shamelessly unoriginal premise is what makes this well worth watching if you’re a horror fan; Finn gets an unexpectedly impressive amount of mileage out of the film’s one gimmick – the inherent creepiness of a too-wide smile in inappropriate situations – and somehow manages to even make jump scares, that hoariest of cheap tricks for the genre, unbearably tense and frightening.
He’s aided by an ace team of craftsmen, almost all of whom I’ve never heard of before this feature. Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s “music,” as far as you can even call it that, is a fittingly unpleasant blend of discordant screeching string instruments, atonal voices not really “singing” so much as alternating between moaning and roaring, and warbling bass and percussion noises slamming into each other. Not since Daniel Pearl’s piss-colored cinematography for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre nearly five decades ago has a single craft element of a horror movie been so appropriately revolting. A tip of my hat also to Elliot Greenberg, an editor with an intuitive sense of knowing when and when not to cut to inflict maximum dread on an audience who justknowsshe’sabouttoseesomethinghorribleifsheturnsaroundohgodIjustknowit! D.P. Charlie Sarroff flexes darkness and negative space in his shots prodigiously, and is refreshingly comfortable with capturing unclear images in background shots to heighten our anxiety.
And while I’m sure this might not be quite what Mom and Dad want to read, but their daughter is a very capable actress. No, we don’t need to start up a makeshift Oscar campaign for her; this isn’t an extraordinary Lupita Nyong’o in Us or Essie Davis in The Babadook-level achievement. But she’s got the “right” screen presence for a movie like this and charts a credible arc of the smart, rational protagonist keeping it together at first and then becoming more and more rattled until she’s the same jumble of nerves and barely-coherent stammering she tried to counsel in the prologue. I look forward to seeing what she does next.
Even its feints toward Deeper Themes are refreshing, as, yes, we do find out that The Monster Is Trauma Personified™ and this ties into Rose’s past, but rather than wallow in this dour theme or hitting us over the head with it like an insecure MFA trying to pad the word count of his critical analysis term paper, Finn is smart enough to be efficient in weaving this theme into the mechanics of the smiling creature and how it entraps its victims in a way that doesn’t break the pacing of the rollicking haunted house ride he’s more invested in putting us through.
Is Smile occasionally over-directed? Sure (I loves me some Dutch angles, Parker… but I don’t love them that much). Is it a paragon of inimitability in the horror genre? Absolutely not. But I’ll tell you this much: A24 could learn a thing or two from Smile, a movie that doesn’t dilute its own thrills or wander away from being anything other than an effective horror experience.
In this current cinematic landscape, that’s close to a flat-out miracle.