The new horror movie Smile runs on the premise that suicidal ideation - or at least a metaphor for it - can be transferred from one person to another.
It’s a clever concept for the horror genre but it might not be for everyone whose mental health is vulnerable to the themes of self-harm. Even with the R-16 rating, don’t attempt to jump on the bandwagon if your headspace is not ready for it.
The feature is based on Parker Finn’s short film Laura Hasn't Slept, about a woman (Tomorrow, When the War Began’s Caitlin Stasey) who seeks help from a therapist against an entity that appears in her dreams. With Paramount Pictures’ backing, Finn integrated the character of Laura into Smile as a patient of Dr. Rose Cotter (Mare of Easttown’s Sosie Bacon).
As you’ve probably seen in the trailer, Laura shares that she keeps seeing an entity smiling at her and then kills herself in front of Rose. It’s the stuff of nightmares.
From there, Rose becomes her own patient, cross-referencing Laura’s psychiatric evaluation with her history. She even asks for all the help she could get but was ignored, shunned, and gaslighted - typical experiences of someone who struggles with mental health.
We learn more about her trauma and living with regret. Despite being a psychiatrist, she does not want to let go of their ancestral home, where all of these bad memories began. Her emotional journey makes viewers invested in the lead character, rooting for her survival. Oh, she’s a cat parent, too. “Mustache” is such a cute feline.
There are astute attempts in the movie to avoid stigmatizing people with mental health issues. This includes getting a paid week for a mental health break and going into therapy.
But despite these efforts, I’m afraid the ignorant and the prejudiced would still make fun of people with suicidal thoughts, anxiety, and depression after watching the movie. That’s the danger this movie brings especially in a country where talking about mental health is still taboo. Now, the sinister antagonist can be cosplayed into a monster during Halloween, romanticizing suicide more.
There’s no doubt that Bacon knows the assignment. The acting is phenomenal which is quite rare in the horror genre. (Her father Kevin Bacon must be proud.) Her portrayal plus Finn’s direction disorients the audience and makes them guess whether a scene is really happening or another daydream playing out. Smile carries an air of uneasiness that makes viewers feel unsettled throughout the film.
However, as the lead character tries to find a way to save herself, the movie becomes dragging towards the middle. A few funny banters break the monotony but are not distracting enough to maintain the somber tone. Good thing they cast horror veteran Kyle Gallner (A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Haunting in Connecticut, Jennifer's Body) as Rose’s former flame and cop, Joel, to provide comedic timeouts in a generally intense movie. There’s also a scene-stealing hospital attendant that has funny quips about the doctor’s love life.
The music cues and sound design are almost a commanding force in Smile. Film scorer Cristobal Tapia de Veer amplifies the eerie atmosphere. On the downside, a tedious parade of jump scares can turn off the viewers. It’s a lazy way to trick people into screaming in situations that do not add to the story.
Unfortunately, some elements of the story do not make sense in the third act. Horror films still have to have a set of rules within their supernatural universe. Why the Entity is doing the same trick to scare its host baffles me. The scare factor gets lost by the time they use CG in a person’s ripping his face off during the nth hallucination the Entity made. Phone calls have also been abused as a shock device in the movie, losing their charm when it gets repeated for the second time.
Smile’s ending is familiar and might not surprise a horror film aficionado. It mirrors the last act of Ari Aster’s Hereditary, another supernatural movie that taps into the horrors of mental illness and suicide, which is more brilliantly executed. Had it gone with a refreshing denouement, Smile wouldn’t suffer in comparison with other flicks about defying death - The Ring, Final Destination, and It Follows. The plot has been done to death - no pun intended.
Despite being a rehash, Smile is still an enjoyable watch. It’s best not to watch this alone lest you want an adventurous bedtime. The mythology also hints there’s more to it and perhaps a sequel could make up for its flaws.
Smile opens in Philippine cinemas on Sept. 28, 2022.