Let’s be completely honest with each other. I’ll bet that you are reading this – yes, you, the person with the clothes – react with either suspicion or panic when you catch someone smiling at you. It can’t just be me that sees the universal sign for everything is ok and thinks “what’s their problem?” Maybe I’m naturally suspicious, maybe I have an anxiety disorder, or maybe I can’t read social cues – whatever is wrong with me, it meant that I found Smile kind of terrifying.
Now, I love a good mental health horror, something that takes it and metaphors the fuck out of it. Take Relic, or They Look Like People, Smile fits snugly alongside them. Smile is a simple concept that hides an emotionally complex tale about trauma, psychosis, and just how well a monster can cloak itself amongst it. All of which surprised the fuck out of me after seeing the kind of goofy trailer. I’m not saying Smile is Hereditary level, but it’s closer to it that than it is to, say, Halloween Ends.
Adapting from his short film, Laura Hasn’t Slept, director Parker Finn achieves something that is very hard to do well in the horror genre, make something simple scary. In the case of therapist Rose Cotter, it’s an entity that plays with her reality and fucks with her mind, most commonly showing itself as someone Rose knows smiling at her. This is the simple yet great bit. You can hide everything behind a smile. You can put anything onto a smile. If I told you someone I knew just kept smiling at me you would probably think “count yourself lucky that’s all they’re doing.” It’s harmless and majorly creepy all at the same time.
To my surprise, Smile, despite how it was advertised, actually takes its subject matter seriously, more akin to what would happen if one of the kids from IT became a therapist and came across another creature that feeds on fear and chaos. It’s very Stephen King, very Mike Flanagan, in the sense that Rose is a character first and a horror protagonist second. Finn uses character for the scares rather than trying to fit a story around the premise. I think that’s why Smile is striking a chord with people. It’s like The Black Phone, but much better. Having characters that are relatable means we are willing to invest more in them, and I was willing to invest a lot in Rose and in Smile and I wasn’t disappointed.
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By Kevin Boyle
(header image via Vulture)