Ever notice how in postmodern horror movies the lead always has trauma in their backstory that dovetails neatly into the conflict they’re facing? It could be a doozy, such as Florence Pugh’s family all dying in one hellish night in Midsommar, or it could be as subtle as the racist microaggressions that Daniel Kaluuya must contend with in Get Out. The big difference between the pre-eminent Final Girls of this cinematic era is that in 1978’s Halloween, pre-massacre Laurie Strode’s purple emotional bruise was being outed for her crush on campus hottie Ben Tramer, while Scream’s Sidney Prescott already had the baggage of her mother’s murder weighing down all her relationships.
It makes sense then, considering what a boon it’s been to the genre, that a horror movie should interrogate the nature of trauma itself: what its effects are, how it’s inherited, whether it can be spread. That is the intriguing throughline which Paramount’s horror movie Smile uses as its load-bearer. A perverse riff on “Smile and the whole world smiles with you,” Smile begins with a traumatic image: a mother (Dora Kiss) in the throes of depression dying of a drug overdose. The camera then pans to reveal her little daughter Rose (Meghan Brown Pratt) standing at the bedroom doorway, a mute witness to it all.
Cut to the present, and we see the adult Rose (Sosie Bacon, who made an indelible impression in her few sequences as Kate Winslet’s dissolute daughter-in-law in Mare of Easttown) now thriving as an emergency intake psychiatrist at a metropolitan hospital. But first the camera floats in the air, showing the landscape upside down, then suspended directly above an ambulance as it disgorges a screaming patient at the hospital’s emergency room, before it floats past the glass of Rose’s office and follows her as she goes about her daily routine, as if it were an omnipresent predator eyeing its next prey.
That is the vague “something” that pursues Rose through the course of Smile: a ravenous entity with a taste for people who are firsthand witnesses to a suicide, whether by garden shears or household hammer or shards of a broken ceramic vase. In her office, Rose meets distraught graduate student Laura (Caitlin Stasey), who insists that something is out to get her after she witnessed a random professor bludgeon himself. “It looks like people, but it’s not a person,” Laura wails, before she collapses screaming on the floor. As Rose frantically calls for assistance, Laura pops up in front of her with a maniacal grin on her face, then proceeds to slit her own throat.
What follows is another reliable trope in postmodern horror cinema: pursuing the roots of the conflict via a mystery chase. After her increasingly erratic behavior alienates her fiancé (The Boys’ Jessie T. Usher), her therapist (Robin Weigert), and her grimly determined suburban mom of a sister (Gillian Zinser), Rose has no choice but to reopen communication lines with her ex Joel (Kyle Gallner, who gets more screentime here than in this year’s installment of Scream), who happens to be—how convenient!—a police detective.
Smile benefits from its oppressively grim atmosphere: from Lester Cohen’s production design palette of grays and lavenders offset against Rose’s shades of blue wardrobe to Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s electronica-based music (a bit blatant) and Charlie Saroff’s off-kilter framing (he and writer-director Parker Finn have too much of an affinity for the disorienting upside-down shot, which Ari Aster and Nia DaCosta employed more sparingly and thus more effectively in Midsommar and last year’s Candymanreboot, respectively), everything helps build your dread. But the whole enterprise is anchored on Bacon’s skittishly vulnerable performance: When Rose screams at her fiancé that she isn’t unhinged, you can see in Bacon’s eyes that she recognizes how self-defeating her behavior is. After a lead in her investigation devolves into a terrible confrontation, Bacon scarfs down a hamburger like a death-row convict devouring a last meal, and never has a fast-food binge looked so defeatist.
What ultimately works against Smile is Finn’s by-the-book plotting. Like Lights Out, Smile was developed into a full-length feature from a successful short—in this case, an 11-minute film that won a jury award at the 2020 edition of South by Southwest. But in padding out his 11-minute narrative into 155 minutes, Finn opts to go the diagrammed schematic route: There is no beat in Rose and Joel’s odyssey of discovery that you haven’t encountered before in films like The Ring or It Follows; the initial death that kicks off the investigation, the cross-examination of a frightened witness, the final confrontation in which the terror masquerading as a metaphor finally reveals its horrific, corporeal form—you’ve seen all this before. The result is a horror experience that is entertaining, but feels predictable.
At the most, Finn proves himself to be a competent—if at times repetitive—horror director, able to deploy jump scares and impeccably composed images to fun effect. And Smile is never more fascinating than when it tries to dive deeper into its premise, as when Rose’s fiancé wields the revelation of his background checks on her like a weapon or when Rose and her therapist dissect the effects of her mother’s suicide on her life. At these moments, Smile almost seems to limn the pain of PTSD vividly. But if the movie’s premise is built on an ironic take on “Smile through the pain,” then its pain doesn’t cut deep enough.
Smile opens in Philippine cinemas on September 28, Wednesday.