Released: 29th September
Seen: 16th November
2022 is turning out to be a fantastic year for horror, every month just seems to have another great horror flick for fans of the genre to enjoy. Not only has Horror as a genre been doing great, but the kind of horror that’s striking it big is so varied. Films like Terrifier 2, Barbarian, Scream, Hellraiser, Bodies Bodies Bodies, Nope and X are just a handful of horror titles that’ve come out this year and turned this into one of those years that horror fans will mark as a turning point for the genre. Smile is just another film to throw on the pile that we will point to in years to come when proclaiming 2022 to be one of the best years for horror in quite a long time.
Also, time to issue a content warning, this film deals heavily with ideas of suicide and mental illness and those will need to be discussed so consider this your trigger warning.
Smile opens in an emergency psych ward where Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is meeting with a new patient who has been admitted after displaying signs of what can only be described as mania. This patient has a strange history, having seen her professor commit suicide right in front of her only a week prior and since then has been having horrific visions of people with dark demented smiles plastered upon their faces who keep telling her that she will die. Rose tries to talk to her to understand what’s going on but before she can, this new patient kills herself right in front of Dr Rose with a horrific smile plastered on her face the entire time.
Strange as it might seem, this is the beginning of Dr Rose’s descent into an anxious spiral that’s exacerbated by her own past (as Dr Rose also witnessed her mother ODing when she was young) and leads to her beginning to see the strange smiling people who put her through a mental torment unlike anything she’s ever experienced, one that will weaken her mental health to the point where there is no telling what she might do to herself or others.
Smile doesn’t shy away from the intensity of its subject matter, it takes the horrors of a mental breakdown and turns it up to a 15. It knows the topic it’s playing around with is a big one, one that many people who will see the movie deal with in real life and it handles it surprisingly well. It’s a film that openly talks about things like needing therapy, how hard it can be to get help, how the medical system can fail patients and how not all mental illnesses are alike and does it in ways that help set the tone that Smile is going to abuse to scare the ever loving shit out of you.
One of the big ideas of Smile that it uses to gloriously horrific effect is the idea of suicide contagion, basically the idea that if you know someone who has committed suicide then the odds of that happening to you goes up. Smile takes this and puts it on steroids, creating this chain of horrors that slowly destroys the mental health of each person who goes through it until they get to a place where smiling maniacally while setting themselves on fire seems like a good option. It might not be the most subtle way of using such a heavy topic, but it’s certainly making the most out of it to create some genuinely shocking horror.
It’s a little hard not to compare this to another recent horror film that touches on the idea of suicide as a contagion, Grimcutty. Where Grimcutty didn’t seem willing to actually address the seriousness of the subject matter, Smile absolutely does. It touches on the trauma of witnessing such an act, on the pain it causes to those left behind and on the senseless loss of it all. Even in a film full of people walking around with stupid smiles, it knows that it’s playing with a really serious topic and doesn’t sweep it under the rug. This is a traumatic thing that’s being touched on, how would it affect a child to see that? How would it affect the wife of someone who passed on? The film actually takes the time to think about that trauma and explore it, and then uses some of that trauma to help scare the shit out of the audience because that’s why we’re here.
While there is a fairly decent-sized cast full of well-rounded characters that Smile plays with, the entire film is just a display of the undeniable talent of Sosie Bacon who is put through the wringer here but keeps everything feeling very real. You really never are able to tell if something supernatural is happening or if her character is experiencing a psychotic breakdown and that’s all because of Sosie’s incredible performance that dances around that very fine line between crazy and terrified. When she’s terrified, the audience is terrified and the film ends up working in large part due to the performance of the lead.
It also helps that Smile’s writer/director has penned a fascinating script that makes the most out of every element of the central theme and has such a great visual style that really elevates the material. It’s a strong visual style that really helps set Smile apart from other films about people seeing strange things that will lead to an eventual horrific death (there’s a lot of those in Horror). That visual style also helps the audience create their own horror, a large amount of the time you’ll catch yourself scanning the background to see if there’s anything there because the tone of the film just suggests that there is something going on at all times.
This isn’t to say everything about the film is perfect, it’s got a very strong love of loud noises to work as the scares which can be fine up to a point but eventually, you do end up just kind of waiting for something to make a very loud noise – that’s not a scare that’s just an irritating surprise. When the scares are effective, such as the first moment we see the titular smile, it’s incredible but some of the jump scares are just someone yelling at the audience and that’s not going to work for many repeat viewings. Hell, some of them don’t even work for the initial viewing but when they do work it can be nerve-shredding.
Smile is smart and terrifying in equal measure, never afraid to push the limits of its subject matter and doing it while never being tacky or dismissive of the seriousness of the topic. Loaded with tension, great performances and more than a few jaw-dropping moments, Smile is a surprisingly great horror film in a year chock full of them.