You know what they say about why smiles are contagious. They help to minimise your stress levels, relax the body, boost your overall mood and even lower your heart rate and blood pressure. But writer-director Parker Finn has a different interpretation of how smiles are contagious in a macabre way.
So, in this horror movie simply titled Smile, Finn successfully establishes its creepy and ominous tone from the get-go. We meet Dr Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), a psychologist who attends to a patient named Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey) in a psychiatric emergency ward. Laura turns out to be a PhD student and she claims she’s not crazy but instead, wanted the doctor to believe her about being haunted by a “people but not a person” that only she can see. There’s an increasing sense of palpable uneasiness throughout the conversation between Rose and Laura inside the room. It doesn’t take long before all hell breaks loose — Laura suddenly becomes a different person, complete with a psychotic grin with her hand holding a broken piece of a vase. Then, she cut herself from the side of her face before slitting her own throat before her body collapsed on the floor blanketed with a pool of blood.
No doubt the opening scene showcases Parker Finn’s flair for incorporating dread and grisly horror. The scene is also easily the best one in Smile and anything else that comes afterwards pales in comparison. Well, I would say the subsequent scenes are a hit-and-miss affair, even though the movie does a decent job of giving us some effective dread-inducing tension moments and jump scares. The latter has one jump scare that got me startled but here’s the thing about Finn’s penchant for relying too much on this typical horror gimmick. Some audiences may love lots of jump scares in their horror movies but I always find them a cheap tactic designed to evoke a shocked response. It’s not that I’m entirely against horror movie that uses jump scares. Too much of them, well, can be distracting and how I wish that Finn would instead incorporate them sparingly and effectively.
Back to the story, we learn that the violent death of Laura in front of Rose has bothered her ever since. She begins experiencing continuous trauma and paranoia and loses her grip on reality. Her fiance, Trevor (Jessie T. Usher) doesn’t know how to deal with her and so does her sister, Holly (Gillian Zinser) while her superior, Dr Morgan Desai (Kal Penn) suggests she needs to take a long break. Her therapist, Dr Madeline Northcott (Robin Weigert), who is responsible for treating Rose’s personal trauma after the death of her suicidal mother during childhood, advises her to do something positive that can distract her from overthinking the recent incident.
The thing is, nobody believes Rose no matter how hard she tries to convince them that she has been seeing things. Except for her ex, Joel (Kyle Gallner), a cop who later agrees to help her investigate the victims who all died in similar bizarre suicide patterns.
Finn has a knack for framing his shots to mirror the eerie setting of the movie with the use of inverted shots, extreme close-ups and Dutch angles. He also includes loud sound design and sudden cuts while making good use of Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s foreboding and sometimes distorted score to maximise the psychological-horror experience. He doesn’t shy away from the sheer brutality of gore and violence, even though some scenes look borderline silly or over-the-top.
Frankly, Finn’s screenplay about how a traumatic protagonist deals with an unseen entity is nothing new because it instantly reminds me of David Robert Mitchell’s far superior It Follows (1995) starring Maika Monroe. I also wanted to point out that Smile suffers from a lengthy running time of nearly two hours. It would have benefited the movie better if Finn keeps it lean for around 90 minutes. The padded-out narrative is obvious, particularly during the sluggish middle part of the movie. All to the point it overstays its welcome that the story lingers too long to make a progress.
Acting-wise, Sosie Bacon easily stands out the most as Rose, where she does a good job portraying a traumatic character trying to make sense of all the sinister going-ons that have been driving her insane. She tends to overact in certain scenes (among the parts where she becomes hysterical during her nephew’s birthday party come to mind).
Smile is far from the great high-concept horror movie that I hoped it would be. But Parker Finn’s feature-length directorial debut remains a reasonably unsettling experience about trauma and mental condition that is best seen on the big screen.