Smile Review: A Frequently Creepy Fright Flick That Doesn't Have An Original Thought In Its Head [Fantastic Fest]

What are we to make of "Smile," a horror pic that is somehow both effectively creepy and almost comically derivative? Movies steal from other movies all the time, but it starts to get downright ridonkulous when "Smile" is concerned. "The Ring," "The Grudge," "Oculus," "It Follows," the recent "The Night House," and many, many more films in a similar vein make up the skeleton of "Smile," which seems to think that all you need to tell a new scary story is to simply rip off a bunch of other successful horror movies first. I am a proponent of the idea that movies should be judged on their terms, but "Smile" doesn't really have any of its own terms. It is a bit of mimicry; a paint-by-numbers set-up that is content to feel consistently familiar. It exists in the shadow of everything that came before it. Even worse, it latches onto one of the laziest recent horror tropes — trying to explain all the horror away under an ill-defined blanket of "trauma."

And yet! I would be lying if I didn't admit that several scenes in "Smile" got to me. Some of them are admittedly cheapo jump scares, but some are truly unnerving to the point that I squirmed in my seat. Now, if only the rest of the movie could match these few and far in-between scenes, and then we'd be onto something. But will that even matter to the casual filmgoer looking for something spooky close to Halloween? Probably not. Indeed, the casual watcher might even find comfort in how familiar everything is here. But gosh, "Smile," couldn't you give us something new? The fact that "Smile" comes on the heels of the excellent horror surprise "Barbarian," which also borrowed others' ideas and yet managed to make them seem fresh and new, certainly doesn't help matters. 


Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon, who does good work here, especially since she spends a huge chunk of the film in near-hysterics) seems to be living a perfectly normal life. Then one day, a patient walks into her office and tells a terrifying tale: she keeps seeing something. It looks human, but it's not. Indeed, it's able to even disguise itself as people you know — the patient mentions she once saw it disguised as her long-dead grandfather. All of this is plenty creepy on its own, but just to kick things up a notch, it's revealed that this spirit, ghost, entity, demon — whatever you want to call it; it's never really clear — also has a fondness for smiling. A lot. Spooky!

Rose thinks the patient is going through some sort of mental crisis, and she very well may be. But that doesn't mean she's lying. Rose is further traumatized by the whole event after the patient dies by suicide right in front of her eyes. Almost immediately, Rose's life begins spiraling out of control. She begins spotting grim grinning ghosts wherever she goes, scaring off her new boyfriend (Jessie T. Usher) in the process. Not to worry, though! Rose also has a hunky ex-boyfriend (Kyle Gallner), who is also a cop, which means he's great for serving up exposition in the form of old police files.

It seems whatever is tormenting Rose has a long, bloody history. But that's not quite enough to get the people around Rose to buy into her stories. Worse, Rose can never be sure if she's even talking to people she knows, or if it's the creature in disguise. This tips the entire tale into the world of mental illness, a messy place even in the kindest of hands. Here, writer-director Parker Finn makes no attempt to really understand anything about mental illness; it's merely on hand to serve as a plot device.

But Finn is also adept at serving up scenes that scare. An encounter with Rose's therapist (a very game Robin Weigert) is unsettling, as is a scene where Rose visits a prison inmate (Rob Morgan) who might know exactly what she's going through. And yet, "Smile" also gets lazy by having the majority of its scary scenes turn out to be nightmares Rose is having. Look, nightmares can be plenty scary! But if you give us a scary scene and then have the main character jolt up in bed, confirming that scary thing we just saw didn't even happen, it kind of robs the entire endeavor of momentum. 

All of this bugged me. But I also found myself nodding along in agreement at several of the film's more effective scary scenes, despite the fact that it feels like huge chunks of story (specifically a backstory about Rose and her troubled mother) are glossed over or barely touched on. There's real skill and artistry smiling out at us here. Too bad it's buried under so many secondhand scenarios.

/Film Rating: 5.5 out of 10