By Bradley Lane
Borrowing from the greats is how all of the best films are made. Filmmakers take something they love and then add a piece of themselves to the work and that makes it original. We wouldn’t have a film like Get Out without Rosemary’s Baby coming first to lay the foundation. Peele added the Black American experience to a paranoid horror thriller template and made a modern classic. This is all to say that taking inspiration from other works is not inherently negative. What 2022’s Smile does however is lazily repackage horror tropes and ideas into a film that is technically well crafted but fails to make a real impact for lack of originality.
Rose works as a therapist for an inpatient crisis care facility. She loves her job despite its inherent stresses; however her work is violently interrupted one day when a struggling young woman kills herself in front of Rose. This horrific trauma leaves Rose reeling, but soon she realizes she is not just traumatized, but haunted by a malevolent force. This sudden bout of psychosis threatens every support system Rose has and isolates her from her partner, friends and family. Alone, Rose must discover the nature of her curse and do all she can to stop it before it claims her life next.
The conceit of the film will sound eerily familiar to anyone familiar with the horror canon, as it borrows heavily from both The Ring, and It Follows. So then, what does Smile do that other horror films haven’t already done? It certainly has something to say about mental health, but the film’s events muddy the message. Certain plot points highlight the isolation people suffering from mental health issues can endure but other moments play into harmful stereotypes about neurodiverse people. Ultimately by the end of the narrative I feel audiences will walk away with conflicting ideas of what the film is trying to say, for lack of thematic clarity on the part of the filmmakers.
However, despite my reservations, Smile is a thrilling theater experience. The film isn’t going to win awards for its visual acumen, but it does a great job at establishing tension and violently releasing that pent up energy. This effective use of scares is mostly due to solid editing and a stellar, if slightly overused score. Played by the numbers throughout the film, the story unfolds obviously up until the final 10 minutes or so when it finally begins to take bold risks. These final moments are by far the best part of the film, but by this point it’s simply too little, too late.
It won’t be joining the ranks of the greats that inspired it, but in terms of modern horror you could do a lot worse than Smile this year. Smile is currently showing exclusively in theaters. – 3/5 stars