Last weekend, a few Major League Baseball fans stood out from the stadium masses by remaining robotically still and sporting creepy smiles. They turned out to be professional actors paid to participate in a viral marketing stunt to promote the new horror film, Smile. Considering the release of the similarly Internet-fueled Don’t Worry Darling and the spooky season selections now on streaming, Smile has some stiff competition, so Paramount is smart to employ such a creative and attention-grabbing marketing gimmick. If only the film could more fully match that novelty.
Sosie Bacon stars as Dr. Rose Cotter, a therapist in the emergency psychiatric ward of a New Jersey hospital. Right off the bat, writer-director Parker Finn and production designer Lester Cohen create an atmosphere of palpable dread. Rose meets her patients in a sterile, slate-gray room with two blue, armless wingback chairs. When a young college student named Laura (Caitlin Stasey) comes in for help, she assures Rose that she’s “a Ph.D candidate, not a lunatic” — as if mental illness discriminates.
Laura speaks frantically about some kind of evil “entity” appearing before her in the form of people smiling unnaturally. What happens next is best left for you to find out for yourselves.
This opening scene is a standalone stunner; it would make for a great short film. The remainder can often feel like a short stretched to feature-length (more or less what it is, as Paramount tapped Finn to adapt his South by Southwest award-winning short, Laura Hasn’t Slept).
Laura’s description of the smiling spirit is a striking, unusual campfire yarn, but unfortunately, Finn doesn’t spin it into anything we haven’t seen before. To avoid spoilers, let’s just say something sinister and deadly spreads in a way that recalls The Ring, Final Destination, It Follows and countless other horror films.
Of course, as is so often the case, no one believes Rose once she finds herself in danger. Sure, it’s been a horror trope forever now, but women being dismissed as crazy in horror films is growing tiresome. At least Finn deftly uses humor against those who act dismissive or put off in the face of mental illness or outlandish circumstances. Rose takes a particularly sharp jab at her sister (Gillian Zinser) for wanting to remain a perfect “PTA parent in a smug, suburban bubble” rather than stepping outside of her comfort zone to confront issues bigger than her son’s seventh birthday party. At said party, a smiling demon is amusingly indistinguishable from the other parents with fake happiness plastered on their faces.
When Rose’s former flame (Kyle Gallner) returns to her life on detective duty, the film hits its stride. We’ve seen this kind of will-they-won’t-they procedural stuff a billion times before, but Bacon and Gallner share endearing, lived-in chemistry. As a respective therapist and cop, they effectively convey how their characters’ grisly work still gets to them despite years of experience. It’s poignant to see them both struggle to rationalize their bizarre circumstances with professional knowledge.
Bacon anchors the film with a performance that earns our empathy and drives home Finn’s wry humor. When Rose lists off all of her seemingly insurmountable problems and concludes by saying, “Other than that, I’m really good,” Bacon delivers the line naturally rather than hitting it hard as a punchline. When asked what is threatening her life, Rose blurts, “It’s the … thing,” making us chuckle at the thought of how awkward and inarticulate we’d be in the same situation.
The film eventually makes its way toward the kind of big spectacle you’d expect, but it at least earns its brutal, bracingly bleak twists by making us care for these characters amid the otherworldly sights and sounds.
Smile is the kind of horror movie that will often leave you thinking, “Been there, done that.” At the same time, it’s still the sort of warm familiarity you can enjoy curling up with on a chilly fall night.