Growing up, we are often taught that the only way to appear welcoming, is to give a smile.
Well, after catching psychological horror, Smile, you might feel differently.
The film sees mental hospital therapist Dr. Rose (Sosie Bacon, Mare of Easttown) stretching herself too thin at work, but avoids being alone at home without her husband, Trevor (Jessie T. Usher), and is seemingly struggling with her own mental health. She’s burned herself out but refuses to leave for a better-paying job because she’s content and in some ways, guilty (more on that later). The cherry on top? She witnesses a patient of hers commit suicide in a bizarre manner – you guessed it, with a smile.
After witnessing the suicide, strange things begin happening to Rose and she starts hallucinating, feeling an evil presence always watching her and starts questioning if the people smiling around her are actually real, or if it’s the entity is teasing and mocking her.
Simply put, she’s being haunted by an always smiling entity whilst everyone around her treats her like she’s crazy. The only person who listens to her is a police officer, Joel (Kyle Gallner), who is assigned to the suicide case and as the movie reveals, is Rose’s former lover.
In some ways Smile takes after the likes of The Ring, It Follows and even Sinister where our protagonist finds themselves cursed, and need to look for a way to get rid of it. And whilst films of the same genre make it seem like getting cursed is an accident, dumb luck or a twisted game of fate, Smile is sinister in that passing on the curse is intentional, as it includes death with a witness present.
There’s also no clear way of winning this curse. You get haunted until you eventually get possessed and die, or you choose to end your life… and still die. Rose’s investigation on ending the curse leads her to one sole survivor and even then, the way in which he escaped his curse is not ideal unless you want to spend the rest of your life behind bars. Each victim ends up dead within 4 to 5 days too, so Rose is working on a time crunch.
A hard-to-break curse and the sense of impending doom are common elements in psychological horrors and thrillers – to which Smile fulfils, but what takes Smile up a notch is its use of jumpscares and gore.
Seasoned horror fans would smile at the thought of being afraid of such cheap shots, but Smile’s jumpscares are hard to predict, even if you are too familiar with certain cuts and scenes. Foggy mirror? Wipe it with your hand and poof! A ghost appears. Open the door of a fridge or a cupboard? Close it and you’ll find the killer waiting right behind it.
In time, filmmakers have learnt how to tease viewers with these scenes and viewers expect to see something only for the tension and anxiety to amount to nothing (because hey, that’s so typical) and then after a faux moment of tension and release, something scary will pop up on the screen. It acts as a precursor or warning for sure but Smile has none of these niceties.
Smile hits you with a jumpscare at the most random of moments, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a lull moment in the film or if our protagonist is fresh out of a heated argument, Smile will always have you on your toes and you will never be able to catch it or anticipate it.
Thankfully, Smile doesn’t over-rely on jumpscares, and spread things out across the almost two-hour film, to maintain its effectiveness. What Smile successfully does is to keep Rose and viewers second-guessing. The fact that the movie’s main element surrounds a smile also makes the movie extremely creepy and unsettling to watch.
Smile is also gory, adding to the unsettling feeling when watching the film. The movie features a number of suicides whether in the form of a photo, video clip and/or entire dedicated scenes, and each is executed violently, involving lots of blood-spluttering and is absolutely heinous especially since the characters are doing it all with a smile on their face too. Smile truly is difficult to watch during these scenes, which again, adds to the movie’s scare level.
While a curse, a haunting, gore and suicides are the main horror elements in this film, Smile has an additional layer that is explored quite subtly, that of mental health. Viewers learn that Rose’s mother had depression and died after a young Rose neglected her wishes to seek help and treatment. The trauma of living with a parent struggling with depression and subsequently, a death that could have been avoided is discussed in the film’s background. It’s not the overarching horror like the entity and the curse as we’ve previously mentioned, but it is ever-present in Rose’s interactions with her older sister Holly (Gillian Zinser) and her husband.
When the entity taunts and haunts her, it makes use of Rose’s trauma too. To a certain extent, Smile attempts to show how trauma affects people when left untreated for a long period of time and how we can easily inflict trauma on innocent people around us too.
In all, Smile is a solid horror film with plenty of horror elements and layers that complement each other. The story is also easy to follow and the uncomplicated premise allows viewers to be easily engaged and sucked into Rose’s life only to scare us with jumpscares and gore when we least expect it.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
Smile is creepy and unsettling. Horror fans will either leave the theatres smiling or wishing to never see another upward-curved mouth or a toothy grin ever again.
Story - 7/10
Direction - 8/10
Characterisation - 6/10
Geek Satisfaction - 9/10