As a self-proclaimed movie reviewer, I have the pleasure and displeasure of needing to keep up with the present times. In most cases, I get to see new talent rising and the impressive, sometimes experimental, techniques and special effects the film utilizes. In other cases, this means I have to see the films that I dread imagining sitting down to watch – one of these was Smile (2022, dir. Parker Finn) which went wild across TikTok as the newest most disturbing film anyone has seen. A title that I’m consistently skeptical of.
Every year at least one film is discovered or comes out that spreads like wildfire across social media that is “the most disturbing movie ever.” When it’s not a snapback wearing bro-dude teaching kids about the oldies like Faces of Death or Cannibal Holocaust, it’s usually marketing for either a Netflix movie (such as Unfriended) or a Hollywood production that might be hard to sell by itself. But in every case, “the most disturbing movie ever” has disappointed me and Smile is no exception.
Smile, written and directed by Parker Finn, began as a short film titled Laura Hasn’t Slept which showed at the film festival South by Southwest (SXSW) where the concept was then picked up by Paramount Pictures. The film’s narrative follows Dr. Rose Cotter (played by Sosie Bacon) who after watching a patient commit suicide begins to have frightening hallucinations. As the symptoms progress, Rose falls down a rabbit hole of chain suicides to uncover the mystery of the curse she now has. Will Rose be able to stop the chain of suicides, end the curse, and save herself before her week runs out?
Before sitting down to watch Smile, I already had low expectations. The constant claims for the film being disturbing made me glance at the film with hesitance, and the poster and trailers for this film didn’t help. Everything about it sent signals to my brain that it would be a terrible waste of time. In retrospect, I’ll admit that this is strange for me to say as many of my favorite films are the ones that everyone else hates or can’t get into. If this film were made by a B-Movie company, I feel as if I wouldn’t have reacted so harshly to it. In fact, I more than likely might have felt excited to see this film if it were a B-Movie. It’s a cliché premise that could easily end up terrible, but could make for an enjoyable and goofy horror movie. But, because Smile is done by a large production studio it doesn’t feel as fun, mostly because Hollywood horror likes to take itself seriously 100% of the time. I think doing this for such a silly and overdone concept is a huge mistake because it turns a concept that could be entertaining and fun, despite the clichés, into a film that’s nearly lifeless, boring, and lacking anything new. But I believe this is something a lot of modern horror writers and directors struggle with because many big names (or those wishing to become big names) seem desperate for serious, dark topics, or needlessly turning something innocent into something gritty (like the upcoming Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey).
Once in the film, I was able to find a handful of redeeming qualities but the bad news is that despite these qualities the film isn’t great – fortunately it’s not the worst thing I’ve seen, either. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was a clear narrative that didn’t get strayed from and that we received a strong lead. There were moments where Rose’s character wasn’t the best, however I might blame this more on the writing than the actress herself as the dialog is typical and generic for this type of film. Many lines of dialog throughout are overly generic statements that one might hear someone say in any horror movie; lines such as, “Look behind you,” “It’s smiling at me. Not a friendly smile. It’s the worst smile I’ve ever seen in my life…When I see it, I just feel like something bad is going to happen”, and, the moment that made me want to just turn the movie off, a crazy man smiling and yelling, “You’re going to die” over and over. Much of the dialog throughout follows this same pattern that the characters are attempting to say whatever the most horror-movie-protagonist response would be and it ends up coming across as unnatural, boring, and predictable.
Thankfully, where the film lacks in originality, it makes up for it in the special effects department. As discussed in previous reviews, I’m a special effects nerd and I love to see how monsters, gore, and deaths are handled in a horror movie. The color and consistency of the blood used throughout was perfect to me. None of the deaths disappointed me either, and I found many of the uncanny effects throughout to be impressive. My favorite example of this is after an argument between Rose and her sister Holly (played by Gillian Zinser). As Rose sits in her car to decompress after the argument, the audience watches Holly angrily walking to Rose’s car. Once Holly reaches the car, Rose watches her sister’s neck twist downwards to meet her face to upside-down face.
I really enjoyed this moment because it was genuinely unexpected. But, as nice as this scene was, nothing could have prepared me for the detail and care that went into the entity haunting those with the smile curse. The monster is unlike any other I’ve seen in a horror film and is made of pure nightmare fuel – this creature is genuinely terrifying, and arguably is the only scary thing in the film at all. The audience does not get to see much screen time of this monster, which is a shame but understandable. After staring at a screencap of the monster’s true reveal, I dare to say that it seems to be a practical effect rather than CGI – at least, the initial face reveal is, the full body shot is debatable. In other words, this monster looks as if it was sculpted and painted. I could be wrong, but if the monster is a practical effect then I’m ecstatic. My personal stance on horror movie special effects is that a practical effect will always be scarier and more effective to the audience. Also, it aesthetically looks better in horror to have a physical object that the actors are able to interact with rather than a lifeless 3D model they have to pretend is there.
Finally, the metaphor, or message, of the film should be addressed. I understand the metaphor that Finn is attempting to establish in Smile, however I don’t think it’s executed very well. It seems as if the metaphor was half-thought out and then placed as a rocky foundation just to make a cool, super creepy movie about people smiling, which is definitely not a generic concept to use. Overall, the message seemed sloppily put together and incomplete, as if Finn had an idea what he was going for but didn’t truly understand more than a generalized concept of his message. I felt more frustrated with the filmmaker than I might typically feel in other movies and I believe it’s because I wasn’t fooled by the art direction attempting to fill in the missing half of the metaphor used. What I mean by this is that there is a heavy focus on the art direction in this film – for example, B-roll shots that are upside down with dramatic music playing. While I assume everything is well intentioned, it came across to me as the film playing dress up, or pretend. I don’t believe Smile is a deep film, or a film with a lot of hidden meaning, but the art direction copies films such as Hereditary and Midsommar which have fanbases dedicated to the deeper meaning behind the films. I want to believe that if Smile had done its own thing, and not attempted to use a “deep and meaningful” filter, maybe I could have enjoyed it more. But all I can presently see is someone attempting to copy some recent big hits that have made thought-provoking and symbolic horror more prevalent.
I give Smile 2 out of 5 coffins.
I never wanted to watch this movie, but I feel satisfied knowing I walked away from the film with at least the experience of seeing good special effects. But overall, the film just isn’t scary, unnerving, or disturbing in any way. I found myself disappointed by the jumpscares, not because they were present but because the majority of them were bait and switches. For example, the scare usually ends up being a phone or car rather than something actually scary. Additionally, the only thing I could think about was how close to The Ring this narrative got – however when it comes to the narrative I’d rather see a copy of something good than to watch a film struggle to remain interesting. I was also pleasantly surprised by the film’s finale. Like my previous review Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Smile has an ending that is unhappy, unfortunate, and depressing – my favorite. An unhappy ending makes for a very happy Rachel. Just not happy enough to give Smile a better score.
Smile is now available for streaming through Amazon Prime Video, Paramount+, and Philo, and it is available to rent starting at $5.99