Smile doesn’t give you long before it starts terrifying you. Just after we meet Dr Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), a psychiatrist maybe too committed to her job, she’s sitting with a patient who insists she’s being hounded by a murderous smiling entity. Rose is shocked when the terrified woman starts thrashing about on the floor. Looking away briefly to call for help, Rose turns back to see the woman cut her own throat, a horrible grin stretched across her face. Whatever haunted her is now coming for Rose, smiling broadly as it ruins her life.
For about the first half, Parker Finn’s horror debut is interestingly creepy. There are echoes of It Follows, David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 hit about an entity that ceaselessly stalks its victims. There’s a persistent feeling of threat and an everydayness to its look that makes the horror more jarring.
Rose keeps spotting someone in the distance leering at her, but they’re not quite close enough to see clearly. She’s convinced something is tormenting her at home, but it could just be her nerves tricking her. There’s a distinct possibility this is all in Rose’s head.
It’s certainly believable that the trauma of watching a patient slash her own throat, piled on top of Rose’s unresolved childhood suffering, has given her mental health a severe kicking. Finn and Bacon (excellent throughout) make the audience feel her nerves slowly shredding. As a film about the ways past traumas haunt you, it’s hugely effective.
Disappointingly, the second half cruises towards generic horror tropes. Rose goes looking for the source of the ‘curse’, finds someone who has helpfully gathered a lot of evidence on it and eventually confronts a monster. The keenness to give everything a clear explanation dilutes the danger.
Smile is a fine way to make yourself scream at the cinema screen
That said, even as it becomes unsurprising in its story, Finn always has a skill for shock. Sometimes those are classic jump scares (overdone, yet effective), but he also has a sense for weirder set-ups. One of the film’s most frightening moments is a close-up of the back of Rose’s head. A voice on the phone tells her to turn around, which she can’t quite bring herself to do. It puts the audience in the position of… whatever’s there, waiting to find out what we are.
Smile is overall a solid horror, a fine way to make yourself scream at the cinema screen, but within it there are enough moments of horrible invention to make Finn a director to keep an eye on. There may be bigger, freakier surprises in store.
In UK cinemas now. In US theaters Fri Sep 30.