As your typical jaded movie critic, I see enough horror films each year that few manage to strike genuine fear inside me. I feel like a magician critiquing one of his own, seeing through the illusion to the nuts-and-bolts of the craft—like how this musical tone predicted that jump scare.
But this summer has renewed my faith in this most visceral, and often most hackneyed, of genres, first with the stealthily cerebral masterpiece “Barbarian” and now with the relentlessly sinister “Smile,” which, while not quite at the level of “Barbarian,” is, quite honestly, one of the most frightening experiences I’ve had in a theater. I couldn’t shake the film after leaving the cinema last night. I lost sleep over it. I couldn’t get its most haunting images out of my head, and I worried, like some child, that it would inspire nightmares. And I’m 40 years old, mind you. I haven’t thought this way about a movie since my first time seeing “Rosemary’s Baby,” home alone on DVD, a thousand years ago. (Even “The Shining,” my favorite horror film, didn’t affect me this way, perhaps because, as always with Kubrick, I’m looking at the trees instead of the forest.)
The reason is right there in the title. Writer-director Parker Finn’s debut feature is about a supernatural entity that takes the form of corporeal people, and makes itself known by smiling at its targets—fake, painted, bone-chilling, dead-inside smiles. This idea in itself—the subversion of a universal symbol of friendliness and happiness into a marker of malice and torment—is a stroke of sadistic genius. Finn fills his film with other, more familiar smiles in his frame’s periphery, beaming at us from a character’s coffee mug or from the now-ubiquitous Pain Assessment Tool in a hospital. It’s hard to look at them the same way again.
The recipient of these menacing gestures is Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), a counselor at an emergency psychiatric unit, who is accustomed to prosaic mental-health disturbances—one patient eating her hair, another muttering nihilistic pronouncements to himself. But after a petrified girl tells her that she’s been traumatized by a smiling entity only she can see, and then proceeds to take her own life in front of Rose, all the while smiling herself from ear to bloody ear, the skeptical doctor becomes the being’s next victim. Having long treated patients suffering from hallucinations, now she’s the one with the wild stories of maniacal wraiths visiting her at work and at her bedside. She’s the one told to get some rest, to take some time off, that it’s all in her head, that perhaps she should take up regular therapy sessions again.
“Smile” taps into real stigmas about mental illness that continue to inhibit discourse, with characters like Rose’s patients, and soon enough Rose herself, dismissed as “head cases.” The callousness with which society relegates these suffering individuals is balanced with an equally powerful critique of a scientific method that reduces every such anomaly to an explainable condition. Because, surely, nothing can exist outside of the materialistic paradigm.
None of this subtext would resonate if the film itself wasn’t so impeccably made, and “Smile” is gripping from the first moment. With soft focus and muted lighting, Finn’s camera emphasizes the vastness and tidiness of Rose’s home and work environments, suggesting a neatly ordered life whose disruptions are like the fissures dividing her mental state.
As Rose endeavors to solve the metastasizing germ eating away at her consciousness and stability, it becomes apparent she’s the latest in a long chain of people who captured the “virus” and then, within days, must pass it on to someone else at the expense of their life. A similar concept permeated the excellent “It Follows” (2014), in which the curse, of sorts, was transported sexually; in “Smile,” trauma is what keeps the entity alive.
You could call this entity a meme, and you wouldn’t be far off. Perhaps this is ultimately why “Smile” has had such a chilling effect on me. In the real-life, so-called Slenderman case, two girls in Wisconsin stabbed their friend 19 times over less. It’s all just a movie, until it isn’t.
“Smile” is playing now in most area theaters.