Movie Curiosities: Smile

Congratulations are in order for the C-suite at Paramount. Top Gun: Maverick saved the studio right when Warner Bros. Discovery imploded and now Paramount is no longer in the basement. Hell, maybe Viacom could purchase WBD — picking up DC Comics would make up nicely for how they inexplicably failed to purchase Marvel right after their success with Phase I and just before the MCU took over the goddamn world.

You know, I wonder if there was anything in recent history that might explain this change in fortune. Some drastic overhaul to explain all of this. checks online Oh, yeah, Viacom merged with CBS in 2019. And Sumner Redstone finally croaked in 2020. That’ll do it.

Anyway, Smile comes to us from Paramount Players, an imprint put together in 2017. If you haven’t heard of it before, it bears repeating that Paramount was a steaming mismanaged pile of shit until just a few months ago. Suffice to say the imprint was put together in direct response to Jordan Peele — who came to fame by way of sister company Comedy Central — fleeing Viacom to establish his unique brand of horror at Universal and make a fuckton of money for that other studio.

In that spirit, Smile is a horror movie with a shoestring budget. The film comes to us from Parker Finn, here making his writing/directing feature debut after a career of fuck-all. The biggest name star in the cast is freaking Kal Penn, here playing a supporting role. And then we have the trailer, selling us a weak-sauce The Ring ripoff built on the flimsy visual hook of smiles.

It’s hard for me to stress enough how badly I did not want to see this movie. I had completely written it off until some people I respect went on Twitter and said the movie was actually quite good. What’s more, this disposable horror flick was actually a deeply compelling allegory about mental health.

How could this be possible? What the hell did we end up with? Well, let’s take a look.

Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon, daughter of Kevin) had the misfortune to see her mother kill herself at a young age. In the time since, Rose has dedicated herself to working as an ER psychiatrist, helping patients through life-threatening crises instead of more lucrative work in private practice. I might add that she has a handsome and loving fiance (Trevor, played by Jessie T. Usher) and they have an extravagant house together, so she’s apparently doing quite well for herself. Her sister (Holly, played by Gillian Zinser) is a vapid yuppie bitch, but Rose is otherwise doing quite well.

All of that goes out the window when Rose crosses paths with Laura Weaver, played by Caitlin Stasey. See, a week prior, Laura had the misfortune to witness her college professor kill himself right in front of her. A week before that, this same college professor was the sole witness to another suicide. The pattern stretches back some indeterminate length of time, and every suicide was immediately preceded by erratic behavior and hallucinations. Why nobody ever noticed this alarming pattern of coincidences before our protagonist did is beyond me, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

(Side note: Stasey is more or less reprising her role from Laura Hasn’t Slept, the short film that Parker Finn made in 2020 as a proof of concept for this feature.)

Anyway, Laura is wrung-out and screaming delusions of being haunted by some smiling shape-shifting demon when she comes to Rose in the ER. But by all appearances, Laura isn’t suicidal. Yet Laura suddenly and inexplicably kills herself directly in front of Rose anyway, smiling the whole time. So now our good doctor is cursed and she has to suffer through a week of demonic hallucinations as she tries to figure out how to survive the curse.

What we’ve got here is a straightforward and time-honored premise in which a female protagonist is haunted by persistent terrifying visions that only she can see. She’s screaming bloody murder about how she’s going to be killed in some way that any rational person would find ludicrous. She’s chasing down clues and looking for connections to solve a mystery that may not exist. The whole affair is slowly turning her into a sleep-deprived nervous paranoid wreck as she desperately searches for anyone who can help her, or even believe her. Which proves to be especially difficult, as nobody can explain what’s happening in any coherent way, and this threat is well beyond anything that modern science can deal with.

It’s a classic premise, but this movie takes it a step further by giving the character unresolved guilt over her mother’s suicide. Thus the other characters are led to wonder if she might be suffering some kind of genetic mental disorder. It certainly doesn’t help that our demon is explicitly using Rose’s mom and her inner trauma to drive her mad.

On top of all this, we’ve got Rose’s tendency to pull 80-hour work weeks even before all this started happening. We’ve got the trauma of a patient in her care (albeit for a grand total of ten minutes) committing suicide in front of her. Rose takes to frequent and heavy drinking as events unfold. Other characters ask on countless occasions “Have you gone crazy?!” with no trace of sympathy whatsoever. Rose’s development arc is loaded with such actions and imagery that keeps adding layers to this picture of a woman suffering in deeply horrific ways that aren’t seen or acknowledged as real by anyone else but her.

And what about our monster? What exactly is this demon and what does it want? How and why did this whole chain curse get started? Why is this demon doing what it does? Well… the origin story is never explained. And by all appearances, the demon’s entire point and purpose is to inflict trauma. And I’m not just talking about the ones who are cursed.

As the plot unfolds and Rose carries on with her investigation, we see what happens to her friends and family. (Not to mention her poor cat. TRIGGER WARNING.) We see the friends and family left behind from the previous suicides. We even meet a character played by Rob Morgan, who found a way to beat the curse at unspeakable personal cost. The demon isn’t just directly causing suicide for the cursed, it’s tricking the cursed to inflict misery and trauma unto others. Regardless of whether Rose lives or dies, the point has been made that there are worse things than death.

Put it all together and we’ve got a monster that works supremely well as an allegory for mentally illness and deep-seated trauma. The whole story makes for a fantastic tale about the struggle to get well and get by under the stigma of a mental illness that nobody else seems to understand… right up until the ending. Without getting too deep into spoilers, I’m sorry to say that this is a horror movie with a “fuck you” ending. With all respect, I don’t know if ending this particular movie on that particular note in that particular way sends the intended message.

Which brings me to the horror aspect. No joke, this movie is a master class on jump scares. The setups, the misdirects, the atmosphere, the fake-outs, the execution… it’s all done so excellently well that when a shock came right out of nowhere, I honestly didn’t resent the filmmakers for it. The jump scare didn’t feel cheap, it felt legitimately earned, and that’s about the highest compliment I can pay for a horror film. Even outside of the scares, the camerawork and editing are positively bursting with personality.

That said, it bears remembering that this is a demon with the power to create vivid, borderline corporeal hallucinations in the mind of our protagonist. So of course we can’t always trust what we’re seeing on the screen. While this does lend itself to some genuinely diabolical fake-outs, the trick does get old after a time. This is a significant reason why the ending falters, because of course we all know the climax couldn’t have ended that easily.

Then we have the cast. Sosie Bacon is the standout, with a dynamic performance that perfectly sells the “mental illness” aspect of the film. Rob Morgan does supremely well with what’s basically a speaking cameo role, Caitlin Stasey is quite memorable as the catalyst for this whole mess, and I was pleasantly surprised to see Judy Reyes poke her head in there. Everyone else I could take or leave. Even Kal Penn could’ve been swapped out for anyone else and it wouldn’t have made a difference.

Though Smile is hardly a perfect film, it’s a damn fine horror movie. We’ve got a harrowing lead performance from Sosie Bacon, a tired premise ingeniously spun into a detailed mental illness allegory, and some of the best jump scares I’ve seen in any horror movie ever. This movie is unquestionably better than it had any right to be, and that’s easily worth a full recommendation.

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