Smile Is The Best Kind Of Pretty Good Horror Movie [Fantastic Fest]

My wife and I have a Friday-night-at-home ritual: we get drunk and watch horror movies. And we have rituals within the ritual. She's a trained singer, and alcohol loosens her pipes. When a horror movie utilizes a menacing drone shot to establish a location, she sings "Drone shot! Everybody loves a drone shot! A drone shot!" When a character finally busts out their laptop to google the problem at hand and learn what supernatural force is menacing them, she sings, beautifully, "Internet research part of the movieeeee." These little songs are our inside jokes, but they didn't emerge from nowhere. And they are not and were never intended to be mean-spirited. We just watch enough horror movies to see the trends, internalize the cliches, and respond accordingly. I write on the internet. She sings over a glass of whiskey.

We never do this with "great" horror movies. Those deserve our attention. Our sobriety. And we never do it with truly terrible horror movies — at least not a first. Those come at 3:00 in the morning, when we're plastered and daring the other one to suffer. The sweet spot, the movie that plays the best one drink in, is the sturdy, familiar, well-made horror movie that's built out of component parts. Or recycled parts. Either way, nothing feeds our Friday nights quite like the B+ horror movie, the scary film where you're always one step ahead of the plot and can predict certain elements and reveals like clockwork, but it's well-done enough that you just don't care. It's a familiar ride, but one made by talented people who know how to push the right buttons. The pretty good horror movie.

Enter "Smile."

Pretty, pretty, pretty good

Look, I don't think anyone dedicates years of their life to making a horror movie and is happy to see some schlub on the internet write an article calling it "pretty good." But when I say "Smile" is pretty good, this is a weird form of high praise from my Friday night self. This is the best kind of pretty good, a horror movie that follows a well-trod formula but follows it so well that its predictability acts as a comfort. It's like going on a horseback-riding excursion, and the horse has done the trail so many times that it follows the path no matter what inexperienced tourist is in the saddle. Trust the horse. It knows where it's going.

And I don't mean to compare "Smile" writer/director Parker Finn to a horse. Sorry. But surely he knows his film is a collision of "The Ring," "It Follows," and every email urban legend that used to haunt your inbox back when everyone used AOL. He's clearly a talented filmmaker, as "Smile" is dripping with dread and tension, with stretches of slow-burn building to effective, creative jump scares designed to freak out a theater full of rowdy horror fans. Or in my case, designed to cause me to spill vodka all over my couch and say I'll clean it in the morning before forgetting and regretting it later.

The point is this: there's real skill involved in making an overly familiar dish taste great. Just when you think this is just yesterday's mac 'n' cheese, you encounter distinct flavor and chew thoughtfully, carefully. There's real satisfaction in something predictable that knows just how and when to push your buttons and surprise you.

How it's coming

If you've seen enough horror movies, you'll probably be 20 minutes ahead of "Smile" at all times. As the lead character finds herself cursed by a viral entity that forces its victims to die by suicide, a seasoned genre buff will call every major reveal, predict the twists, and know the basic structure of the third act in advance. So the real fun comes not from getting lost in the plot — a "Ring"-esque procedural, which, like every horror movie these days, is about trauma — but from seeing how the familiar gets remixed.

Yes, you know exactly how a conversation scene is going to go down, but the exact details of the conversation can jolt you. Because I can say "Smile" didn't surprise me, but it sure as hell scared me. Finn is a hell of a technical filmmaker, knowing when to accelerate and when to tap the brakes. He's the designated driver I want during one of my Friday night horror movie drinking sessions. "Smile" lulls you in by playing by rules, only the break them in key split-second sequences that catch you off guard. Even if goes from A to B to C on a well-trod flowchart, it showcases a mean streak, a gnarly sense of unease that makes it all feel just unsafe enough.

I'm not ashamed to say there are at least five or six scenes in "Smile" that made my ass leave the chair. I'm not ashamed to say its scenes of violence made me wince and shudder. And I'm certainly impressed by how the movie buries its sterling creature design, hiding it until it's ready to deploy it with maximum effectiveness.

Yes, I saw it all coming. But I didn't see how it was coming.

Formula, refreshed

"Smile" doesn't have the thematic complexities of "Nope," the raw and rotten humanity of "Pearl," or the WTF factor of "Barbarian," but in a field of 2022 horror heavy-hitters, it does something I can't help but celebrate. It's freshened up the formula and proved that the old tricks still work when the folks behind the camera care enough. I'm not always in the mood for a movie like "Nope," Pearl," or "Barbarian," but I'm always in the mood for a movie like "Smile."

So let's celebrate the pretty good horror movie, the horror movie that doesn't reach for the sky, but instead chooses to fill the room. You will see more ambitious horror movies this year, but you won't see one that will leave a sold-out crowd screaming and chattering like this one. In fact, I think newer and younger horror fans, the ones who won't be able to predict the beats as effectively, will turn "Smile" into TikTok sensation — key shots and moments are made for WTF reaction videos.

But me? I'll grumble about it being familiar. But then I'll pour my drink on Friday night and watch "Smile" again. And my wife will sing the drone shot and internet research songs a half dozen times each, because yes, it's exactly that kind of movie. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

"Smile" opens in theaters on September 30, 2022.