Parker Finn’s Debut Film Is Jump-Scare Horror Done Really, Really Well

Jan 1, 2023

It doesn’t happen too often, especially from modern studio fare, but Parker Finn’s “Smile” is the kind of horror movie that earns the unique qualification of “genuinely scary.” Credit to Finn, the writer/director making his feature debut here, for achieving this with a strong and simple visual hook: possessed characters who smile, a sign to the witness that something is about to go horrifically wrong. It’s always creepy when actors here suddenly force a wide grin onto their faces, gradually baring their full teeth and pointing their eyes in a fashion that would barely be welcoming in a photo. Finn knows the inverse effect of a smile, frozen in place, and in-person—it becomes a startling, disturbing threat like few others. 
READ MORE: ‘Smile’ Final Trailer: “The Worst Smile You’ve Ever Seen” Hits Theaters On September 30
Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) experiences this first-hand when she sees a patient named Laura (Caitlin Stasey), who reveals in between her claims of not being crazy that she has been seeing something disturbing, in the form of people. She screams and screams until she’s finally possessed by some force. Standing up and with a big smile on her face, she then uses a sharp object to slice into her neck; the resulting shot of her in a big pool of blood with an even bigger grin makes for one of the film’s most unsettling cuts. This is all accompanied by a disturbing, disorienting soundscape provided by “Black Mirror” composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer, who proves that chaotic beeps, warbling echoes, and oh-my-god-what-is-that sound instrumentation can make for a frightening score on its own. 
This traumatic event turns out to be the beginning of an uncertain end for Rose, who inherits the same kind of hallucinations that Laura came into the hospital freaking out about. And it nonetheless cuts to her core, bringing her back to memories of watching her mother die by suicide when she was a young girl. She became a therapist to help people like her mother, and now she’s become trapped in a cycle of trauma that separates reality from the power of her mind. 
There are familiar influences that “Smile” uses openly as its story unfolds, like its too-similar premise to the stalking STD ghosts of David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows.” Rose realizes that what she has been afflicted with comes from a lineage that includes people witnessing a traumatic event (usually someone dying by suicide), only to reach that fate themselves days later. While trauma is not as claustrophobic a premise, however much we all try to avoid being psychologically disturbed, the idea of how characters pass it on remains unsettling. 
Visually, “Smile” is content to look like similar tales, and owes something to different flourishes popularized by Ari Aster and other modern horror contemporaries. A good example is how Finn captures his sinister images with just enough darkness a la “Hereditary,” or flips his camera upside down for at least two wide establishing shots (an A24-produced film favorite). Not to mention the film’s usage of images of self-harm for many of its scary moments—“Smile” can easily play like the mainstream version of more bold independent horror, which includes dialogue that makes its core metaphor of trauma as obvious as possible. 
But “Smile” gets a great deal of mileage out of its most original idea, seen in the title and on its actor’s faces. The threat of this visual hook is Finn’s lifeline through the movie’s duller sequences that go for cheaper jolts, like a sudden loud phone call or an abrasive cut to a car honking that’s just skipping ahead to the next scene. Even when it’s more obvious that Finn the filmmaker is messing with us more than the smiling entity itself, a dread still returns whenever the director gets to play with dark corners of the frame. For every eye-rolling moment that Finn stuffs his script with (and the drawn-out pacing that easily could have been trimmed by 20 minutes), there are enough commendable jump-scares scattered throughout the movie, punctuated with freaky images, to keep horror fans satisfied. 
“Smile” often is a little too content with relying on the lack of rules in its psychological horror, with its main character becoming trapped in a series of fake-outs. But their emotional effect is grounded by Bacon’s incredible and progressively ragged performance, the kind that’s vital to the emotional gauntlet of a movie like this one. Her breath seems to get shorter and shorter with each major development, and the terror she expresses is visceral enough to make scenes that the audience knows aren’t real deeply unsettling. However shaky the supporting characters are (like Kal Penn as Rose’s cautious boss, and Jesse T. Usher as her confused husband), “Smile” is best when it’s more or less a one-woman show with Bacon, trapping us with the evolving fear, desperation, and newfound courage of Rose’s bizarre experience. 
Which brings us to the best part of the movie: a lot of horror films flag by the time they reach their finale, having given away their monster or letting the viewer get too settled into its rhythms. The third act of “Smile” has the opposite effect. It’s full-force freaky in ways most recent horror films shy away from. On a larger scale, it also boasts the film’s best use of shadows, its creepy and emotional set design, and some disturbing faces that Finn then shoves into close-up. It’s even more literal than everything before, but it works when well when Finn’s confidence bolsters up all of these surprises.
The finale is worth the price of admission to “Smile” alone, even if it takes some rote horror scenes to finally get there. Those smiles prove to be holding something of a secret, including how budding horror filmmaker Finn has a wonderfully sick eye for what scary images linger when the lights go back up. [B+] 

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