‘Smile’ is the horror movie love child of ‘Joker’ and ‘It Follows’

As evidenced by all The man who Laughs and Joker at This, american horror story and The black phonethere are few things scarier than an enthusiastic toothy smile to the point of disturbing. Smile takes this idea to its extreme, building an entire horror movie around an ear-to-ear smirk that settles on people’s faces just before the murderous villainy happens. As far as iconic sights go, it’s seriously nerve-wracking, and that, with a healthy dose of cheese and the ring-by the way-It follows diversion – doing a lot to make writer/director Parker Finn’s feature debut the kind of entertaining, unoriginal, tactic-loving studio effort that’s catnip for teens venturing to the multiplex with friends on a Friday night.

Literally rendering “reverse that frown” via a litany of demo shots in which the camera spins and loops in order to reverse the action, Smile is a tale of the unholy hell brought about – in the mind and in the real world – by witnessing trauma. For Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), a therapist who treats psychiatric patients at a New Jersey hospital, the painful incident that shaped her life was the suicidal death of her drinking and pill-taking mother, whom she observed as a child and propelled her on her medical journey. Rose is a calm, caring doctor who tells her patients that the things they see don’t exist and can’t hurt them. While that might be true for maniacal Carl (Jack Sochet), who mumbles standard creepy stuff about how “We’re all gonna die,” it’s less accurate when it comes to Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey), a student who shows up in Rose’s admissions room with a crazy story to tell.

[Minor Spoilers Follow]

According to Laura, she is stalked by an evil invisible specter who sometimes resembles people she knows and sometimes takes the form of strangers. Either way, these characters always try their best to impersonate the Clown Prince of Crime, and they don’t seem very friendly. Laura claims this malevolence began when her teacher took a claw hammer to her face in front of her, for reasons that make about as much sense as her own current haunting. Rose instinctively sees it as a product of Laura’s delusional psyche, which sets her up for another dose of deadly distress when Laura panics in her presence, develops her own terrifyingly creepy smile, and uses a very sharp object. to carve out a smiling face. style gash in his neck.

Unsurprisingly, this calamitous day at work rattles Rose, who returns home and drinks wine with her back to the fridge – a residential spot that strangely turns into a recurring hotspot for inconvenience (and broken glasses). Trevor, Rose’s fiancé (The boys‘ Jessie T. Usher) is less sympathetic to his future wife’s troubles than his cat Mustache, and he quickly becomes a pain in the ass who Rose can’t turn to. Luckily for her, one of the cops investigating Laura’s self-inflicted death is her ex-boyfriend Joel (Kyle Gallner), a sweet, friendly guy whom she initially rebuffs before realizing he’s is the only one who cares about her and has the relationships. she has to help him detective. This investigation quickly escalates once she begins to see Laura and a collection of like-minded, smiling, crazed apparitions both in her dreams and, more distressingly, during her waking hours.

Finn has a habit of acting out gruesome nightmares and then revealing it to be a hallucination or a sleepy reverie, though this venerable gimmick isn’t nearly as tired as his jump scares. That said, there’s something amusing about the writer/director’s unwavering dedication to shaking his audience in every corny way possible, whether it’s the sound of an opening cat food can, a car honking at a pedestrian walking down the street or a ghoul bursting out of the shadows to scream with demonic rage. These moments are almost never scary, but they are so routine that they end up inadvertently enjoying Smile, bringing jack-in-the-box tension to nearly every one of his compositions. This situation is facilitated by Finn’s judicious use of background space – a dark door or a window overlooking a forest – to suggest hungry, warped creatures lying in wait, ready to spring up at any moment. .

“That said, there’s something amusing about the writer/director’s unwavering dedication to shaking up his audience in every corny way possible…”

All this makes Smile a cheap amusement park ride, and yet that doesn’t mean it’s not often enjoyable. Although the film has no real interest in trauma as an infectious plague that corrupts and destroys – and can only be overcome by direct confrontation – it does take its nervous tasks seriously. In its first half, Finn’s beaming ghosts give the proceedings a needed thrill, and Bacon enthusiastically transforms Rose from a poised, professional woman of reason into a frantic, red-eyed promoter of curses and superstitions, earning her many worried and bewildered responses. of her mean sister Holly (Gillian Zinser), her caring boss, Dr. Desai (Kal Penn), and her former psychiatrist, Dr. Northcott (Robin Weigert). At least a few of those supporting actors get the chance to show off their sinister sneers, and while that image leads to diminished returns — largely because some actors’ smiles are more unsettling than others — Finn admirably maintains the course, getting bigger and bolder to its monstrous finale.

With the exception of a few scenes laden with expositions of Rose and Holly’s youth that no one, including the cast and director, seems to care about, Smile moves at a brisk pace, blanketing itself in a bruised color palette and employing a score that veers from the shimmer of a music box to a calamitous clamor at every turn. Finn not only borrows from the aforementioned horror films, but also Conspiracy and even Alien 3, and once its story reveals the mechanics behind its chaos, it loses some steam. Yet, by fusing familiar elements into something that feels, if not new, at least suitably polished and lively, Smile does just enough to earn the midnight movie status it so desperately craves. And if an econo-line franchise ensues, well, there’s nothing to cringe about.

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