Every now and then the trend is to make horror movies palatable to critics and those who, on the regular, like to refer to movies as "cinema". It rarely works unless there is some other factor involved, like the race or gender of the director or the subtext of the film, which leads those same people who would trash any genre film rushing to promote it like it's some sort of revolutionary piece of art. And, no, I'm not making any slights against Jordan Peel, since his movie are pretty much worth the praise no matter how much white guilt might be behind some of it.
What I have noticed is that a number of young American horror directors have begun to notice that Europe and Latin America have been generally doing it better than us for close to a decade. Thankfully, unlike the trend in the 2000s of making inferior versions of Japanese horror movies, current filmmakers have begun latching onto the style while making their own original films. Still, when it comes to a movie like Smile, it may be time to put original in quotes, since despite having a more artistic visual style director Parker Finn still borrows heavily from two better American films from the recent past.
Rose (Sosie Bacon) is a psychiatrist working in the trauma wing of a local hospital. As she is about to leave she gets a call about a young woman that has been brought in having delusions. The girl, Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey), has been seeing an entity following her that takes different forms with the only constant being a disturbing smile. As Rose tries to calm her down Laura goes into a seizure and then kills herself in front of Rose while smiling at her.
Soon Rose begins to see visions similar to what Laura described. She at first diagnoses it as related to the trauma of seeing the suicide, but the more she looks into it the more she realizes what's happening is real. Unfortunately, no one around her, from her fiancée Trevor (Jessie T. Usher) to her sister Holly (Gillian Zinser), believes her. The only one that will help her is ex-boyfriend Joel (Kyle Gallner), a police officer who soon realizes that Rose is the most recent in a chain of similar suicides going back months, if not years.
Although the matter of transference of the curse is much different, and Finn at first didn't admit it, there is more than a little passing resemblance to It Follows. One possible solution to the problem also kind of mirrors what is in that movie as well. Still, as it progresses, Smile begins to resemble Drag Me to Hell, as the situation becomes more and more hopeless and Rose becomes isolated. The one new twist is the creature in Smile has the power of manipulating its victim's mind to get what it wants, making some of the most elementary solutions to the problem impossible.
The one thing that Smile does have above It Follows is that Parker Finn, as a visual artist, is much better than David Robert Mitchell. Mitchell was good at building up tension and executing his premise, but It Follows also displayed Mitchell's limitations as a director. Finn is just the opposite, with the latter third of the film pointing out Finn's generic writing while somewhat hiding that fact behind the power of his visuals. Prior to Laura's suicide much of the conversation between her and Rose is done in uncomfortable closeups, and prior to that her arrival at the hospital is filmed as an overhead shot that eventually moves upward and zooms in on Rose's office window. Other times traveling scenes make good use of flipping the picture, something that is hard to do right. A number of transitions between scenes are beautifully done, and the whole thing is punctuated by a soundtrack that alternates between ambient and discordant without ever defaulting to that foghorn/air raid siren sound that seems de rigueur these days when the music has to be disturbing.
I just wish that the movie wrapped up in all this beautiful packaging and offered with such fanfare had more substance and creativity. Sosie Bacon does a great job in the lead, one of the jump scares works perfectly and Finn is good at creating a disturbing environment, but except for a few twists and turns it pretty much ends up where one expects.
Time: 115 minutes
Starring: Sosie Bacon, Jessie T. Usher, Kyle Gallner, Caitlin Stasey
Director: Parker Finn