Smile is a horror film that is technically sound but thematically adrift.
Published on October 6, 2022
Rating 2.5 /5
The very premise of Smile is loaded with potential. The horror centers around a mysterious curse where those affected start seeing sinister smiles of an evil presence. That evil soon plasters a smile on their faces as they kill themselves. Whoever witnesses this suicide will then be affected by the same problem, placed on a loose timer of how long they have before a grin and a gush of blood. There’s room to explore the concept of smiling and how to maintain your composure when faced with the darkness of trauma. Some of this mental aspect is explored but not nearly enough as this film starts losing focus.
Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) works in a mental institution and has just encountered a woman affected by this smile curse. This distraught patient tries to describe it while stressing that she’s not crazy and that she’s fearing for her life. Rose tries to assure her that everything is okay, but it’s too late. The woman has already smiled her last smile and slit her throat. Now it’s Rose's turn to experience this terror, but we soon learn that there was already terror in her life. She grew up after watching her mother die of her own vices, prompting Rose to experience haunting visions of the past. She tries to keep these hauntings at bay with wine but the fears only increase. That anxiety doubles with this new curse placed upon her soul.
Rose’s visions are certainly terrifying for feeling disturbing and disoriented. She will often mistake people being present in her home and receive mysterious phone calls from those she thinks she knows. The people in her life start to abandon her, starting with her uncertain fiancee Trevor (Jessie T. Usher) and soon her concerned boss Morgan (Kal Penn). They’re understandably scared of a mental state that is rapidly deteriorating. How bad does it get? Well, let’s put it this way. One of the first things we see when Rose gets home is her cat. Per horror movie logic, this cat will die in the worst way and with the most shocking of reveals.
I kept waiting for the film to tap into something more than just the superficial supernatural frights and slow investigation of how far back this curse goes. Yet it never does anything more than just, merely becoming a different iteration of The Ring, complete with a similar timeframe for how long it takes the victims to die. Perhaps there’s a focus on how masking mental issues is damaging. Nope, the mental patients are mostly just present in this narrative as pawns. Okay, but maybe Rose’s dealing with her dark past will hold some greater focus on grief and trauma. Well, it almost does but that message becomes mixed and muddied as the climax is far more interested in having Rose’s mother appear as a giant monster who eats her than a greater element of handling the past.
Smile is a horror film that is technically sound but thematically adrift. The staging works quite well for the frights, complete with a nerve-wracking soundtrack by Cristobal Tapia de Veer. That being said, so much of it just feels like frights for fright's sake, where absurd scenes like Rose hallucinating people pulling off their faces don’t hit as well as they should. This makes Smile such a frustrating experience for having such great shock but with an assembly that seems better built for a Ring-style franchise than any deeper contemplation on handling mental states.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.