How forgiving should a viewer be when they realise the movie they’re watching is actually incredibly derivative? With countless genres having countless entries a year, the fact that someone’s made something remarkably similar to something else shouldn’t be that shocking, as long as it gives the concept in question a fresh coat of paint and an interesting new angle – but what if it doesn’t? What if the movie is pretty much the same stuff with only slight, coincidental changes, should we rage against it and lament that there are indeed no more new ideas in cinema, or do we give it the benefit of the doubt, locking on a fixed grin as we let the mounting similarities go while appreciating all the aspects the filmmakers have managed to get right?
This is the conundrum I experienced while watching Parker Finn’s Smile, a 2022 frightener that actually noticably well made despite the fact that it may be the most overfamilar horror released this year – quite a statement considering 2022 has seen it’s fair share of actual sequels and remakes and Smile isn’t one of them…
Well meaning psychiatrist Dr. Rose Cotter works hard at her job, desperate to help those less fortunate as a result of her witnessing her mother’s suicide when she was a young girl, but this overworked woman is about to get a true dose of unreality when a panic-stricken girl is brought in one day. Claiming she can see some sort of entity that wears the faces of others, that can be identified only by its rictus grin and is invisible to everyone except the victim its latched onto, the girl suddenly first goes berserk, then eerily calm as she picks up a broken piece of vase and then opens her throat up like a tin of beans while grinning from ear to ear.
Understandably shocked, Rose attempts to power through the trauma but soon finds that the hallucinations that the dead girl spoke of are now starting to affect her and soon an unbelivable strain is placed on everything in her life she holds dear, including her already prickly relationship with her sister, her fiancee and her work.
Is she finally succumbing to the same type of delusions that forced her mentally ill mother to kill herself, or has some sort of supernatural force been passed onto her after witnessing that harrowing death. Everyone else in her life firmly believes the former, but as she delves more into the past of this phenomenon, she starts to unravel a pattern that tracks back through countless acts of people committing brutal suicides in front of a horrified witness only for that person to do exactly the same barely a week later. Can Rose, with the help of her cop, ex-boyfriend find a way to break the pattern before time is up and the horrific hallucinations she’s been experiencing finally make her take her own life?
So, to address the incredibly familiar elephant in the room, Smile is a movie that’s so reminiscent of other movies, that when people are hurriedly trying to explain the rules behind this torment-loving trauma demon, you genuinely expect the listener to go: “Oh, you mean like in that movie, The Ring?” or “Oh, kinda like that movie It Follows, right?” and then turn and look right down the camera. In Smile’s defence, other versions of the tormenting-countdown-demon-as-an-affliction movie came out a while ago with Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell debuting in 2009, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows being released in 2014 and the last Ring movie making it bow in 2017 – lthough I genuinely haven’t met anyone who actually watched that movie, so I guess, technically, we’re golden. You see, while Smile is frantically short on originality – even the parallels between the demonic ghosting of a lead character and mental illness is a well trodden path – it manages to offset it by actually being rather well made, honing the thoughtful concept into a tangibly tense outing that make full use of the gifts bestowed upon it by other filmmakers.
I’m serious when I say that there truly isn’t a single scene here that doesn’t borrow at least a little from something else – shock cut to a mangled face is straight out of Hereditary, the initial look of the demon resembles that creature that the old lady turns into in It Chapter 2 and even the harrowing final shot invokes that of Saint Maud, but for those who somehow hasn’t seen the above movie (and more) Smile actually manages to deliver the goods.
Most of this can be attributed to the lead performance of Sosie Bacon (daughter of one time actor and current EE god figure, Kevin Bacon) whose portrayal of a woman with a vunerable past, slowly mentally fraying as a beaming, asshole of an incubus strips her sanity away later by layer with its infernal, version of peek-a-boo, is starkly magnetic. Her pale, slightly emaciated visage is so invested in the goings on it helps you buy proceedings, even when you realise that her boss used to be one half of Harold & Kumar and some nicely judged jump scares and a noticably jarromh score props the experience up even further.
Even the set pieces, while diminished versions of stuff we’ve seen before, carry the appropriate weight, with a memorably horrific meltdown at a child’s birthday party standing out alongside a genuinely nerve jangling, neck twisting, jump scare that was spoiled in the trailer. Even the finale, which ostensibly is the climax of Fallen dumped outside the cabin from The Evil Dead carries just enough twists and turns and a genuinely kick-ass final creature reveal to make the film hit just right and leaves you on a suitable downbeat note that rings true to everything that’s come before.
However, despite all the good the movie manages to pull off, even with it’s highly unoriginal happenings, there’s still the occasional slip here and there. While the juxtaposition between mental illness and genuine supernatural torment is nicely aligned, matters are dragged out a little too much by a sub-plot that suggests that Rose can pass the curse on with an act of a violent murder that ultimately goes absolutely nowhere except delivering the only truly duff moment in the film that results in unintentional laughs instead of the required, popcorn spilling jump.
Circumventing it’s staggering lack originality with an incredibly strong central performance and a successfully thick atmosphere that gives you plenty of dread for your buck, Smile does enough to make sure that horror fans won’t have to grin and bare it.