Despite a somewhat interesting premise, Smile doesn’t live up to its trauma-inducing creepiness through a series of ridiculous performances and loud jump scares.
If you’ve been following my reviews on horror movies, you probably know how unfond I am of jumpscares. Few movies have used it effectively, where you’re genuinely scared about what will happen. Andy Muschietti’s It is filled with jumpscares, yet it’s one of the most terrifying films of the last decade. Why? Because it knows how to subvert audience expectations and use jumpscares through moments you can’t predict. When you see a jumpscare coming a mile away, it isn’t thrilling nor scary. It’s just plain boring (and very loud).
And that’s what audiences will sit through with Parker Finn’s Smile. Based on Finn’s Award-winning short film Laura Hasn’t Slept (I would’ve loved to watch it beforehand, but I couldn’t find it anywhere), the movie isn’t scary at all, but completely ridiculous and very, very loud. And it’s a real shame because the premise sets up something truly special, only for it to be squandered through a series of jumpscares and unintentionally funny overacting by everyone involved.
Sosie Bacon plays Dr. Rose Cotter, who works at a psychiatric ward. There, she meets Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey), who tells Rose that she sees a creature who pretends to be other people with a weird, Truth or Dare-like smile. Of course, Weaver is the only one seeing the creature, which terrifies her so much that she takes her own life in front of Rose, effectively passing over the “curse” of the smiling creature. From there, Rose starts to see the creature, and her perception of reality and fiction gets warped. And then we get a predictable series of unfortunate events involving Rose, who tries to tell everyone she isn’t crazy and is cursed (and, of course, no one believes her, thinking she has lost her mind), except for her ex-boyfriend Joel (Kyle Gallner), who just so happens to be a cop investigating the suicides. As she uncovers more about the creature, the premise gets more interesting, but the film is still painfully ridiculous.
I’ll try not to spoil anything, but a creature feeding on pure trauma to terrify someone to the point that they’ll kill themselves (or someone) after a week is an excellent blueprint for one of the most original horror villains in years. And when you see the creature during its climax, it’s scary. The filmmakers crafted something so terrifying that it could’ve given me nightmares. But they do nothing with it. No, scratch that: they turn it into a jumpscare machine. Every single jumpscare is seen a mile away, making the movie tiresome fast.
And they’re not jumpscares that advance the story, but what Roger Ebert describes as “Gotcha!” moments, which are moments that are “sudden, loud, and scary. This can be as basic as the old It’s Only a Cat cliché or as abrupt as a character being hit by a bus.” There’s a specific scene tailored to make you scream in terror in the theater as Rose tries to listen to a corrupted audio file. She hears something but doesn’t quite know what it is. Of course, she turns up the volume of her computer to the maximum level, puts on her headphones, approaches the computer, loops the clip, and BOO! A random creature appears as if you were watching a prank video. It’s sudden, loud, and not scary because we see it coming. We know that when she approaches her face to the computer, that’s when the director will go, “Gotcha!”
Smile is 115 minutes full of “Gotcha!” moments, each as boring as the last. There are no thrills, suspense, or originality out in its premise. It doesn’t help that none of the performers give legitimately terrifying performances, especially Bacon, whose “I’m not crazy!” schtick is sometimes unintentionally funny. There’s a sequence that’s supposed to be dramatic because it signals to the character (and the audience) that she isn’t in control. And yet the audience I was with laughed very loudly at something they shouldn’t have. I did enjoy Kal Penn as a minor supporting role, but the lines he receives are the most clichéd ones you can get as the “rational” psychiatrist character. But he’s always fun to watch on screen.
It is a shame that a premise this enticing churns out a movie that isn’t scary, thrilling, or has anything meaningful to say about trauma. The actors are talented and yet act as if they belong in a comedy, not a horror movie about how trauma can permanently scar individuals to the point where they can become “crazy.” And since everything is predictable, it won’t be hard for you to guess how it ends when all pieces are put in motion. If you’re looking for an original and scary theatrical experience, go see Barbarian. One of the scariest and most unique horror movies in years.
Smile is now showing globally in theaters.