Review: ‘Smile’ will give you a good reason to scream

Lifestyle | 3 Oct |

Smile is at nearly every moment exactly what you think it is. Written and directed by Parker Finn and based on his short film Laura Hasn’t Slept, it’s a high-concept horror film that, like a lot of popular art lately, is really about trauma, but in a way that’s in on the joke of the ubiquity of that theme. It’s also about an evil creature that smiles super creepily at people before making them kill themselves.

There’s more to it, of course. Once the creature latches onto someone, it tortures them psychologically for at most seven days before possessing them and committing suicide in front of a witness, who becomes the creature’s next victim. It’s essentially It Follows with way touchier subject matter—instead of “sex kills,” it’s “suicidal thoughts are contagious and will claim all your lives one by one.” Fun!


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It really is, mostly. The film’s handling of the topic is largely entertaining, if occasionally irresponsible. It has a habit of using uncomfortably realistic self-mutilated bodies as shock factor shortcuts, which, given the straight-faced but tongue-in-cheek tone the film achieves, feels a little cruel by contrast. Playful nihilism is nothing provocative, but flashing graphic images is more goading than playful. The dead-weight seriousness with which Smile approaches its protagonist’s backstory—she was present for her mom’s suicide as a young girl, thus seeds and cycles of trauma and whatnot—also feels at odds with the movie’s playfulness. When the suicide demon story tries to say what little it does, it generally falls flat.

Otherwise, though, this is an uncommonly well-made scare machine. Finn’s direction has improved noticeably from his short, now less rigid and, most importantly for horror, less predictable. Finn and Relic cinematographer Charlie Sarroff fall back on the usual genre tricks—using frame space to tease a jump scare or lack thereof, obscuring the looming danger in shadows, etc.—but they do so with cleverness and economy, and together with Crawl editor Elliot Greenberg, they set up a series of jump scares that domino into a devious, mischievous dread. It’s as amusing as it is frightening: the movie will train you to expect a visual shock and hit you with a loud noise instead, and when you’re expecting a change-up after that, it’ll lean harder into the audial scares. It’s simple but cheeky and knows what you’re anticipating.

Also bucking expectation is the score, an outstanding dark ambient experience from Cristobal Tapia de Veer. It drones, echoes, and shrieks like a terrified machine, turning the film’s already-dramatic sound design (at one point, someone rips off a hangnail and it sounds like they’re tearing out a floorboard) into a concert of nightmares. At its most uniquely discordant, Smile meshes its soundscape with bizarrely cheerful colors, like the pastel pinks and blues of the mental hospital where the protagonist works. It’s like the film is embodying the oxymoron of a creepy smile: bright setting, evil curse; heavy subject, light fun. The blend pays off.

Mix in a committed performance from Sosie Bacon and startling mid-budget creature design, and you have a more than good enough reason to scream along with an audience. You can’t start spooky season without showing a little teeth.

★★★½   (3.5/5)

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