A therapist has terrifying visions after witnessing the suicide of one of her patients in Smile, a grim and unrelenting, and unexpectedly profound, debut from writer-director Parker Finn. While the boilerplate narrative follows in the well-worn tracks of The Ring and countless others, this one rises far above the usual mainstream horror fare.
Despite the familiar plot outline, Smile is both a first-rate piece of haunted house filmmaking as well as a deeply allegorical meditation on the effects of trauma: how we absorb and process traumatic events, and subconsciously and unwittingly pass their effects onto others.
Smile stars Sosie Bacon (daughter of Kevin Bacon) as emergency room psychiatrist Dr. Rose Cotter, tasked with talking down a disturbed patient Laura (Caitlin Stasey) in one of the film’s opening scenes. Laura describes being haunted by demonic people sporting unsettling grins that only she can see… before donning a disturbed smile herself and slicing through her neck ear-to-ear in front of Rose.
Afterwards, wouldn’t you know it, Rose starts to see smilin’ demons, too: her family, friends, or random strangers pop out to say “boo!” at the worst possible times. They haunt her when she’s home alone, or when she’s with her emotionally absent fiancé Trevor (The Boys’ Jessie T. Usher), or in one of Smile’s most bravura scenes of real-world horror, at a children’s birthday party.
Unlike other paranormal horror movies, there’s no question whether the demons are “real” in the sense that they can be witnessed by or have an impact on other characters in the film. But that places Smile in unusual territory: we know that Rose is having a mental breakdown, and as a psychiatrist, so does she. But that doesn’t make the things she sees any less terrifying, for her or us.
Early scenes focus on delivering the terror. Smile’s sound design deserves special recognition, and director Finn utilizes sequences of dead quiet to unnerving effect before delivering the jump scare that shocks us even though we know it’s coming.
Later scenes start to unravel a plot; with the help of cop Joel (Scream’s Kyle Gallner), an ex from Rose’s past who unexpectedly shows up to investigate Laura’s suicide, we discover that this is some kind of suicide-cycle. Laura had witnessed another suicide before she started seeing things, as had the previous victim, and so on. Rose eventually tracks down one witness who had managed to break the cycle, played by Rob Morgan in a brief cameo.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’re thinking: Rose has to uncover the true nature of the demon that’s haunting her, solve the mystery, and then vanquish it to break the cycle and save herself. The Ring, It Follows, Truth or Dare and countless other horror films over the past two decades have used the same exact story structure.
But here’s where Smile is different: the “demon” here, in allegorical terms, is a parasite that infects those who witness traumatic events. It haunts them, terrifies them, and eventually takes control of them. And through their unwitting actions, they pass along that trauma to other people so the cycle can continue. The titular “smile” is the false face we present to mask the past trauma that haunts us.
There’s a version of Smile without the grinning demons, the jump scares, or the terrifying monster that shows up at the end, and that grim movie would receive high praise and a limited audience (the excellent arthouse horror film Possum, starring Sean Harris, explores similar themes).
But it’s great to see thematic material like this wrapped up in a deceptively audience-friendly package destined for maximum exposure. Smile delivers the usual scary stuff to those looking for that sort of thing… as well as something much deeper that will haunt you long after the movie is over.