Everything scary about director Parker Finn’s ‘Smile’ is in excess: the camera work, the musical score, and sound design, the jump scares, the slow-burn exposition. Considering this is Finn’s directorial debut, he shows a lot of promise in his understanding of how to frame a sequence and how to create tension and to elicit dread and fear but what he now needs to learn is restraint.
‘Smile’ is about a psychiatrist, Dr. Rose Cotter, who meets a patient suffering from a paranoid delusion about a sinister entity that plays tricks on her mind and threatens her with her own death. During their first session, Rose witnesses the patient kill herself, and what she diagnosed as a paranoid delusion turns out to be very true and now this being is haunting her. In the midst of determining what’s real and what’s fantasy, Rose begins to unravel and her own past traumas return.
The film is long, running at almost two hours, and while there’s a lot of story to cover – Rose’s past traumas and how it has affected her present-day life, how the hauntings of this entity are affecting her relationships, the formulaic story point of her uncovering the history of this malevolent spirit – it still could have been shorter if the director, who also wrote the screenplay, didn’t draw out all the scary moments of the film.
Oftentimes, the point has been made but instead of moving further into the story, he’ll add another scary moment, as if he’s trying to reach a quota. It’s relentless and it gets exhausting at some point as it starts to feel repetitive.
And it’s a shame because there’s a lot of good filmmaking involved in ‘Smile.’ There’s a really good use of extreme close-ups on the face of Sosie Bacon, who plays Rose, and we get a very intimate view of her character’s unraveling. It creates a sense of claustrophobia, where, as the audience, you want the medium shot or a long shot just so that you can see the extent of the danger that she’s in. There’s a good interplay of silence and sudden loud noises, of a vibrant musical score that really amps up the tension of the scenes. If these elements were used sparingly, it would have a stronger effect on the movie as it paces us along with the narrative.
Instead, as it keeps coming over and over again, we stop focusing on the story and just psych ourselves up for another scary moment.
Interestingly enough, the film uses trauma and mental health as the fulcrum by which the whole story operates on. While a lot of psychological thrillers or even psychological horror films used mental health as a reason for the death and destruction, in ‘Smile’ it becomes both a weapon and, maybe, a path to salvation. Discussions about mental health are always welcomed, especially when it’s done correctly, but to use it in this horror film, and in such a blatant way, somehow reduces the supernatural aspect of the film by quite a bit.
What makes the supernatural so scary is how mysterious and unscientific it is and can be, and by framing this creature’s motives and processes through mental health makes it feel less believable and more made up than it already is.
There are a lot of good things in the film – use of close-ups, use of crazy camera angles to show the growing deterioration of Rose’s mental health, excellent mix of quiet moments and loud scoring and sound design to amplify a mood – but all these individual elements don’t really add up to a strong horror film. It’s fun to watch with friends for a laugh but it’s not going to stay with you like other horror movies.