Polygon is on the ground at Fantastic Fest 2022, reporting on new horror, sci-fi, and action movies heading to theaters and streaming. This review was posted alongside the Fantastic Fest movie premiere.
Parker Finn’s first horror movie Smile is carefully calibrated to do different things to different viewers. For someone unfamiliar with horror, it’s an efficient and effective fear-fest, full of big, surprising scares and bizarre, overwhelming tension.
But it works quite differently for a savvy horror crowd who can recognize the way Finn iterates on other popular horror films and predict where the story should go from the start. Smile often winks at the audience, offering silence You know what comes next, don’t you? You can see how serious this could get, can’t you? It’s easy to see at all times what Finn is doing with his characters and where he’s aiming for the story – and it seems to be entirely deliberate. Even so, it’s never easy to ignore the impact when the promised horrors arrive.
Working from a previous short, 2020s Laura has not slept, Finn’s storyline takes almost no time to establish who its protagonist is before its world begins to crumble. Working in a hospital’s psychiatric emergency ward, therapist Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is used to seeing people in crisis and belittling them. Then she meets a very shaken patient who claims to be haunted by some sort of malevolent entity that no one else can see, a creature with a horrifying smile that torments her by appearing in the guise of people she knows.
The story sounds like paranoid delusions – and when Rose tries to tell other people about the invisible, malevolent evil shape-shifting creature, it looks like she’s having paranoid delusions too. “I’m not mad“, she professes to her sweet and kind fiancé Trevor (Jessie T. Usher), to her fragile older sister Holly (Gillian Zinser) and to her former patrician therapist Madeline (Robin Weigert, in a role light years away in turn as dead woodby Calamity Jane). But Rose can’t find a way to sound convincing when she says it, especially in a cynical world unsympathetic to the mentally ill.
Smile is often a whimsical, even cheesy horror flick filled with so many scares that just piling it up borders on laughable. Finn uses sharp, loud beeps and brutally fast cuts to make viewers groan and flinch over things as mundane as Rose biting into a burger or ripping out a fingernail. But no matter how much the legitimate alarms pile up, they are startling and compelling. The editing and music are impressively tuned for maximum impact whenever the slow-burning tension resolves with a brutal, ugly surprise. All this does Smile an efficient drive, if unusually relentless.
But Finn pulls off the equivalent of a magician showing the audience how the trick is done, then does it so effectively it still feels like magic anyway. His script models Smile after the ring, with Rose experiencing an inciting incident, discovering she’s on a dead end, luring her reluctant but emotional ex to help, and then researching the phenomenon, with disturbing results. But where other films that followed the ring‘s beats just felt derivative (including several of its own clunky sequels), Smile uses the familiarity of the story to create anticipation. When Rose sees a possible solution to her problem, Smile invites viewers to consider the logical end point of her discovery and wonder if she will make the same selfish choice that Naomi Watts’ character made in The ring – and if so, who will suffer.
In the same way, Smilethe configuration of largely mimics that of It follows, with a threat transmitted virally from person to person, moving relentlessly towards its next victim, while wearing a variety of faces, turning everyone in the protagonist’s life into a potential threat. But again, instead of feeling like an imitator, Smile uses familiarity to heighten the sense of danger, until viewers can no longer trust anyone they see onscreen to be human – putting them perfectly in the mindset of more in addition disintegrated from Rose.
The human element in Smile is as carefully calibrated as the jump is scary, so as to worry the audience when it doesn’t flinch. Finn fills the story with vulnerable potential victims: Longtime horror fans know they have to worry when it turns out Rose has a beloved cat, or Holly has a sweet boy from 7, or that Rose’s helpful ex, Joel (Kyle Gallner) is sensitive, outgoing, and still in love with her. (Kal Penn also appears as Rose’s supervisor, in a role that seems particularly designed to provide a target for chaos.) And Rose’s way of repressing childhood trauma, which she partly shares with Holly and is partly the because of so much tension. between them, creates a particularly rich emotional terrain. Smile is almost painfully effective in preparing for calamity: it’s simple storytelling, with each new character or element designed to heighten the sense of dread about who is likely to die and how much.
The film’s central theme also adds to the sense of dread. From the moment a police officer rejects his responsibility to investigate a grotesque death by calling the victim of a horseman “She seems completely crazy to me!”, it is obvious that deep down, Smile deals with the stigma surrounding mental illness and the urge to reject or demonize those who live there.
Finn finds fertile ground in the vast and perhaps impassable chasm between the sick and even well-meaning bystanders. The public’s sympathy is likely to be with Rose, who lives with a terror she doesn’t know how to combat. But it’s also easy to see why other people would find it disconcerting to try to deal with a woman who behaves erratically and even dangerously, while blaming it all on some sort of incomprehensible fear demon.
A deeper version of this film could go even deeper into the ambiguity of Rose’s situation, dwelling on whether she really just has a psychotic episode, brought on by stress, overwork and legitimate trauma. . Finn chooses to avoid this route, making it pretty clear that something supernatural is at work. It’s a reasonable choice to make in a movie so dedicated to piling fear on top of fear, getting audiences to anticipate the worst that could happen, while genuinely caring about the people who might suffer. Yet it flies Smile of potential subtlety.
But there’s nothing wrong with a horror movie being designed more to terrify an audience than to play games with them. As a writer-director, Finn seems to know that people go to see horror movies for different reasons, some more intellectual and some more emotional. Either way, he does an impressive job of making sure they all walk away satisfied and at least a little shaken.
Smile opens in theaters September 30.