So, in full transparency, today’s post was supposed to be about Deadstream, a new found footage horror-comedy that premiered this on Shudder this week. It’s a fun, if somewhat cliché takedown of Youtuber/Twitch-streamer culture, filtered through the lends of a first-person Evil Dead film, featuring some fantastic practical effects and some clever uses of streaming technology like chat feeds and facecams.
But coincidentally, on a whim, a friend and I also happened to check out Smile in theaters that same night. And as much as I enjoyed Deadstream, Smile was a different beast entirely.
And we have to talk about it.
I’ll admit: I initially dismissed Smile entirely. The trailers made it seem like another generic, lazy teen horror in the style of things like Truth or Dare, which also used the same ‘creepy smiling person’ imagery to generate some cheap scares. I mean look at this thing:
That is not a trailer that inspires confidence. The window neck scare is great, but at most, it suggested that Smile would be nothing more than a nonstop exhibition of jumpscares, which is the mark of a weak horror script meant to do nothing more than scam up ticket sales.
So needless to say, I was not expecting to have the absolute living hell scared out of me for two hours. Let me be clear up front: Smile is not a run-of-the-mill, by-the-numbers horror cashgrab. It’s a relentless, unnerving, morbidly tantalizing descent into madness that had me hiding behind my fingers and plugging my ears in sheer anxiety.
And it’s still a nonstop exhibition of jumpscares. Just, you know, good ones.
Granted, the plot is fairly straightforward, and feels extremely familiar for anyone with even a casual relationship with modern horror. Take one part It Follows, a bit of The Ring, some of Sinister’s signature scares, and add a healthy dose of Hereditary’s sheer unease, and you’ve got a rough approximation of what Smile has to offer. But don’t take that as an insult; The film still manages to feel fresh and inventive, even as it wears its influences proudly on its sleeve as a pastiche of the films that came before it.
It’s a strange creature, one that feels at times like both a flick by an indie weirdo like Ari Aster as well as a mainstream blockbuster horror flick like Insidious. The story and the scares often follow conventional, time-tested tropes and trends, while the cinematography and sound design scream arthouse.
Seriously, this is the most A24 movie ever not released by A24.
The story is barebones and simple, eschewing any fluff or filler in favor of an efficient, straight-to-the-point narrative experience where the terror tale priority to the plot: A hospital psychiatrist, harboring her own hidden traumas, witnesses a patient kill herself after a frantic, nonsensical mental breakdown centered on some unseen, malevolent entity. Soon after, our quickly-unraveling heroine finds herself experiencing the same symptoms as her doomed patient, and discovers a long-running curse that leaves a trail of suicides in its wake has latched on to her. It’s a race to find a way to beat the mysterious entity before her time runs out, as her own fragile psyche deteriorates by the minute and her friends and family dismiss her as manic and insane.
If that sounds familiar, it should: It’s The Ring. It’s It Follows. It’s Final Destination. It’s a curse that spreads from person to person, spelling doom for the unlucky protagonist that gets caught up in the infectious occult affliction. We’ve all seen this exact narrative play out before. So what makes Smile so special?
Well, for one thing, it’s the performances. While The Ring and It Follows didn’t exactly have B-movie acting, Smile manages to one-up them both by featuring one of the most harrowing, genuinely uncomfortable showings by a lead in a horror film that I’ve seen in quite some time. Relatively unknown actress Sosie Bacon (daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick) pours her absolute heart and soul into lead character Rose, as she goes from confident, if slightly closed off mental health professional to a broken woman experiencing full-blown psychosis. Another actor or actress may have brought the entire film down with a hokey, low-effort performance like so many other films with similar supernatural antagonists, but Bacon manages the opposite, elevating the film far beyond its simple subject matter. Her eventual breakdown and desperation is convincing and heartbreaking to watch, and it lends unbelievable weight and gravitas to the film’s stakes.
But beyond that, what makes Smile truly stand out is its presentation. The cinematography in this film is stellar. Every shot is composed to maximize tension and anxiety, without ever having to actually show anything explicitly scary. Granted, there’s also a fair amount of genuinely frightening imagery as well, but even the moments of supposed stillness and safety are filled with a sense of dread an unease thanks to director Parker Finn (in his directorial debut, no less) and his masterful use of space and blocking. Characters are always shot close and tight, with two people rarely occupying the same frame during conversations, which suggests that every reverse-shot will reveal something horrific. The film rarely ever capitalizes on this, being fairly economic with its intentional scares, but knows that the suggestion that something scary might happen is often far more effective than actually following through with a jump.
(Don’t worry, though: Smile has jump scares in spades from other sources. Not since Insidious has my resting heart rate been so high watching a horror film. From the moment the title card appears in this film, you will not have a second to rest and recover. Smile has teeth, and it’ll keep coming at you with everything it has until the credits begin to roll.)
The film also makes liberal use of darkness and negative space to likewise suggest the presence of something sinister, in shots where there isn’t necessarily any threat to our characters. Whenever the lights went out in Smile, I was prepared for the worst. It doesn’t give the audience a moment’s peace, once the ball starts rolling, and as a result, is one of the most stressful viewing experiences I’ve had in a theater in some time. I would have liked to see maybe a bit more subtle paranoia manifest itself in the background of scenes, much in the way that It Follows would constantly keep the viewer guessing if an extra was the entity or simply a random pedestrian, but I suspect the inclusion of that particular device here may have come across as a little too derivative.
As scary as the visuals and the camerawork are, it’s the sound in Smile that’s the real menace. As with most jump-heavy films, like Sinister, musical stings (as well as the lack of music) are Smile’s primary source of suspense. The score for the film is so bizarre, so erratic, and so unnerving, that even moments of relatively benign occurrences take on a disorienting, manic energy. The music more than anything truly puts you, as the viewer, in Rose’s headspace, and legitimately makes you feel like you’re going crazy at points.
I was utterly blown away at how effective Smile is as both an engaging narrative as well as a pulse-pounding thrill ride. My initial impressions of the trailer couldn’t have been more off-base, and I was woefully unprepared for the experience that I was walking into. Which, of course, is an absolute delight: There’s nothing better than being completely surprised by a film, particularly a horror film. If you want something this Halloween to truly test your nerves and play with your sense of calm, give Smile a chance. You won’t regret it.