Horror movies are a funny genre. People either hate them or love them. No middle ground really exists. But, people who love horror movies are a very finicky group, and they are quick to condemn a movie if it does not meet their expectations.
Smile is a new horror movie that fires on all cylinders. While I would not consider it “elevated horror”, it does have several elements that elevate it beyond a simple jump scare/slasher horror film. It’s a smart film, and while it does have those classic horror movie elements that we all nervously crave, (or run from!) it does rise above that as well to give us a dash of mystery. The movie succeeds in keeping the viewer uneasy and uncomfortable the entire film, and maintains the suspense. Smile is an exciting and fun ride and a fresh addition to the horror genre.
Smile tells the the story of Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) and follows her life after witnessing a traumatic and horrifying event while at work. Slowly, she is pulled into a series of disturbing and haunting events which become stranger and more frightening as she desperately seeks answers and anxiously attempts to avoid any further disturbances.
This movie succeeds for two main reasons: Writer/director Parker Finn and actress Sosie Bacon. While not Sosie Bacon’s first major film, it is the first full-length film for Parker Finn. Finn tells the story in such an intriguing and subtle way that we get pulled into her life, and start feeling what she is feeling. One of Finn’s strengths as a writer and director is his ability to slowly and accurately build the tension and anxiety, and keep the audience uneasy in the same way his characters are. Through various filming and storytelling methods, the viewer of this film is seldom at ease. We are always nervous or anxious, and can never quite relax. The same is true for the protagonist in this film. Whether it is an upside down panning camera angle or a dissonant musical chord playing in the background, we are kept uneasy and nervously awaiting the next scare. Even when no scare comes, there are scenes which leave you gritting your teeth in nervous anticipation.
Part of the film deals with mental health and anxiety, and director Parker Finn handles this beautifully. Through the slow burn and gradual descent into madness of the protagonist, we begin to see how each waking moment can build up to drive a character over the edge. He makes it very gradual, and it was so smoothly directed and written that the protagonist’s descent into paranoia and madness felt very real and plausible. The paranoia of the character also opens up many opportunities for jump scare moments, as normal reality is suddenly and abruptly punctuated by moments of horror, usually with no notice. This adds to the anxiety as well, as the audience, along with the character, never knows when these moments will arise.
As brilliantly as Parker Finn handled the subject matter and storytelling, it would not have been effective without a wonderful actor to execute his vision. Actress Sosie Bacon turns in a wonderful performance in this film, and offers a masterclass in acting through her stellar acting. We see the physical and emotional deterioration of her character throughout the film, as she goes from a trusted, poised and professional doctor to a tattered, slovenly, wreck of a human being. The change is striking, yet believable and honest. There are so many opportunities for Bacon to overact and help it along, but she avoids those acting pitfalls, and as a result, she turns in a performance that is subtle, nuanced and powerful.
This movie ended up being something better than I expected. I was expecting a jump-scare infused slasher flick, and I came away with a….well, smile on my face because it was so much better and richer than I expected. Sure, it has its share of jump scares and classic horror movie moments, but it also has a well developed storyline and characters who change throughout the film. It will leave you thinking, and if you get up to use the bathroom or get popcorn, you’re going to miss something important! If you like horror movies that offer a bit of a deeper storyline but still retains those classic horror moments, this is your movie!