When deciding on what the scariest aspect of a horror film is, what comes to mind first? Is it the idea of an unknown killer out to slaughter whoever they come into contact with? An unsettled spirit enacting supernatural punishments on the living? Or could it be something more mundane than that, perhaps even commonly thought of as a sign of happiness?
In “Smile,” the very presence of an “upside down frown” is enough to successfully evoke the same kind of dread and terror as its horror rivals. After a meeting with a new patient takes a horrific turn, psychiatrist Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) realizes that she may have gotten herself involved with something much worse than anticipated. Along the way, she is continuously bothered by terrifying and unexplainable visions — particularly of blank faces sporting ominously wide grins. Such is the underlying horror of “Smile” made all the more real and disturbing by taking the route of subtle scares rather than crude terrors.
As the film progresses, the style of the jump-scares goes from quiet nerve-racking frights to psychologically disturbing at a rather accelerated pace. From start to finish, audiences were glued to the screen as the tense events of the plot quickly gave way to an even more unsettling finale. Yet as the horrific imagery intensely increases throughout the movie, the image of an off-putting smile tightly stretched across one’s face remains the film’s greatest terror tactic at large.
In addition to slowly amplifying its horror elements, “Smile” also incorporates the overpowering and isolating nature of its evil grins into the camera work. For landscape shots, the use of a bird’s eye view angle gives the audience a sense of the impending and menacing terror awaiting the characters. In other scenes, the characters are often placed directly within the center of the shot itself, thus placing the audience deeper within their extremely agitated psyches.
The emotional range of the cast’s performances greatly enhances certain scenes that, if performed differently, might have turned out rather awkward to watch. As the lead, Sosie Bacon fully embodies the horrifying and shocking moments of Cotter’s ordeal with a large amount of relatability. Whether she’s in the midst of a spine-chilling encounter or attempting to make others understand what she is experiencing, Bacon’s harrowing portrayal instantly generates empathy for the troubled Cotter. Another performance of note is Caitlin Stasey’s thought-provoking first scene as the aforementioned patient Laura Weaver. By striking a balanced amount of panic and fear-induced indignation into Weaver, Stasey’s character leaves the audience firmly hooked on the plot very early on in the film.
While the film maintains solid performances and makes great use of certain camera angles, the same can’t be said for its writing. Although thankfully nowhere near the perimeter of “cringe-territory,” the dialogue’s most outrageous flaw is essentially its inability to elevate the story in any particularly meaningful way. Certain lines felt overdramatic and unnecessary in their set-ups and executions, which runs the risk of making viewers feel taken out of the film. This issue was especially present in scenes between Rose and her sister Holly (Gillian Zinser), whose main importance within the film is to dig up their traumatic childhoods in a not-as-well-executed B plot. Despite these shortcomings with Parker Finn’s screenwriting, the film’s director still delivers by serving a screenplay that keeps the audience relatively in tune with the plot.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of “Smile” comes from its theme surrounding the damaging and cyclical nature of traumatic experiences for people throughout their lives. In this way, “Smile” attempts to use its disturbing and outlandish horror elements to represent the internalized suffering that works hand-in-hand with said experiences. While this theme of the film has been a miss for some, I found it to be more apparent in hindsight rather than as an immediate takeaway of the viewing. Instead, I left the film reeling from some of its best subtly shocking jump scares, as well as an ending that will probably leave me psychologically scarred into next year.
Verdict: “Smile” is an exciting and sometimes truly disturbing horror film that works best when channeling subtlety with a dab of the psychologically alarming. Aside from a few minor issues, it has all the tools it needs to aspire toward cult-classic status.