Pollyanna Roberts, Screen Editor, finds Smile a refreshing and frightening horror thriller
Horror films are incredibly difficult to do well, they constantly tease the line between cringey and frightening. The gore and jump scares can easily be overshadowed by poor acting and lack of suspense. As someone who devours horror nearly as eagerly as I devour my popcorn at the cinema, I have been (somewhat impatiently) waiting for a new horror film to sink my teeth into. When teasers for Parker Finn’s new horror flick Smile were released, I was immediately drawn in. The eerie, unsettling ‘smile’ motif was reminiscent of the forgettable 2018 teen horror Truth or Dare. However, once I finally saw Smile, its concept blew Truth or Dare out the window.
Smile follows the life of psychiatrist Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), who witnesses the gruesome suicide of a PhD student, who has been brought into the emergency psychiatric ward claiming a demonic spirit is following her. This demonic presence is said to ‘wear the faces’ of people all around her, whether family or strangers, and it smiles sinisterly. Struggling with her own history of trauma, Cotter must navigate this curse that has now clung to her, as once you see someone take their own life, the spirit latches onto the witness. It only takes days for it to eventually take its newfound victim.
Struggling with her own history of trauma, Cotter must navigate this curse that has now clung to her
The concept was exciting enough, and the use of jump scares did leave me shocked and frightened. However, when Cotter’s aptly named cat ‘Moustache’ strolled into the screen, I already knew that she was not going to be the final girl. The unnecessary murder of Cotter’s cat reflects a common horror trope, which is, in my opinion, a cheap shot of getting the scare factor rolling. Although hard to watch, Finn directed this sequence at the birthday party well and was, for me, the most shocking part of the film.
Sosie Bacon’s acting was incredible, and she deserves recognition for her commitment to the role. After witnessing the sinister smile multiple times, as well as the brutal death of her cat, Cotter is (understandably) shaken up and completely on edge. Her fiancé was one of the worst parts of the film, his simple lack of support for his future wife was shocking. It was as if he didn’t want to be bothered with any of her problems. There is nothing more infuriating than no one believing you, with people telling you you’re crazy instead. I was with Cotter; I too was screaming at the screen.
Another scene that I have trouble forgetting is when Cotter reluctantly talks to her former psychiatrist Dr. Madeline Northcott (Robin Weigert) about what is happening to her. As they are talking, the phone rings. Cotter, again reluctantly, picks up the phone to hear her psychiatrist’s voice on the other end. We slowly look back at the woman sitting opposite her, who isn’t her psychiatrist at all, as she begins to smile…This scene was perfectly executed and unleashed a new fear in me. The camera work, the acting and the score all work hand in hand to create a terrifying piece of cinema.
This scene was perfectly executed and unleashed a new fear in me. The camera work, the acting and the score all work hand in hand to create a terrifying piece of cinema.
However, no matter how brilliant the beginning and middle are, a horror is defined by its finale. Cotter’s futile belief that she can defeat the demon is saddening and hard to watch. What is worse is the false ending, where we are led to believe everything is solved and Finn even teases a romantic reunion between Cotter and her ex-boyfriend police detective Joel (Kyle Gallner), who has helped her on her traumatic journey (unlike her fiancé). Yet, she is not safe, she is still isolated with the demon. Joel finds her, much to her dismay, and witnesses her covering herself in gasoline, a match in hand, with a big smile on her face…
Smile did not disappoint, and it was the refreshing horror that I have been yearning for.