Sunday, October 2, 2022

Darn Ya: SMILE

Horror movies love a good supernatural infection, although it plays admittedly extra unsettling after our pandemic experiences. We know all too well how frightening it is to know you might seal your doom without even knowing until it’s too late. You’ve already let it in. That’s been the fright of The Rings and It Follows, even the Things and so many expert chillers past. Now it’s back again in Smile, a fine horror effort from debut director Parker Finn who proves his facility with dread and effective creeping suspense. The film is about a psychiatrist (Sosie Bacon) who witnesses a patient’s suicide and is soon convinced she’s being stalked by an evil entity hoping to drive her to the same fate. This thing’s signature is giving people, both real and hallucinated, stranger and memory, the creepiest smiles—an eerie glowering wide-eyed Kubrick stare combined with a toothy grin. This evil also manifests as distant whispers of her name in the dark of night, and the occasional unlocked door when she’s home alone. (Would you believe her seemingly supportive fiancĂ©, shallow sister, dry therapist, and caring boss don’t believe her?) That’s standard spooky stuff, but done with enough commitment to silences on the soundtrack and empty spaces in the frame to raise the hairs on the back of the neck with regularity. As the lead (with the help of her cop ex-boyfriend (Kyle Gallner, honorary Scream Queen)) starts researching more and finds she’s simply the latest link in a long chain of witnesses to violent death meeting their own a week later, the film’s trajectory is clear. She’s done everything right, and has been infected all the same.

Though using this long-familiar horror trope of curse-stalked protagonists well enough, Smile is also playing with the recent en vogue horror use of the trauma plot. It lets us know the lead hasn’t recovered from her mother’s death decades earlier, and that’s haunting her, too. The movie plays fair with that metaphor and uses it with some degree of subtly, if cynically drawing to a downbeat conclusion. That stuff is more standard fare, but falls flatter than the stock shivers. What does work, though, is the way it hooks into a kind of pandemic-era dread, matched with other recent horror efforts like David Prior’s The Empty Man and David Bruckner’s The Night House. The former’s sinister whispering keys into a feeling of psycho-social contagion, a dreadful subliminal ugliness that’s unleashed without our knowing and yet tugs at the tides of our moods and consciousness, poisoning our communities into ever-darker thoughts. The latter’s grief metaphor is paired with an architectural ambiguity where shifting nighttime shadows become subtle specters in corners and crannies. Though Smile’s the least of these three pictures, its steady frames and looming doom, and its clear-eyed sense of mental unraveling prodding by traumatic events, places it in the same head space. It’s enough for an effective cold chill on a fall night.

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