Saturday, January 21, 2023

Say "Cheese(y)"

Film: Smile
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

When you watch movies based on a list (or a variety of lists) there are certain things that you do. When those lists change, that means that sometimes you watch a film or two pre-emptively. For the Oscar categories and the 1001 Movies lists, that means finding the things that are critically acclaimed and that I think are likely to be either nominated or curated. For the They Shoot Zombies list, this means taking a look at horror movies that have gotten solid reviews and, frankly, enough reviews to make them potential additions to the list. Smile is one such movie. I watched this because I figured that if the Zombies list updates this year (it didn’t in 2022), there is a decent chance that a film with this many positive reviews has a chance of showing up.

And here’s the thing about Smile--it seems I’ve hit something of a theme of late. This feels like the third movie in the last four that feels very derivative of its genre. Like The Invitation, this is very much a horror movie. Like CODA, it’s a pretty good example of its genre, even if it doesn’t go anywhere that new. There are some solid jumps in this, but all of the scares are more or less of the jump variety. So, while it is certainly going to please a particular type of horror movie fan, it’s also not going to break a lot of new ground.

In essence, the Big Bad in Smile is going to take a lot of its cues from other movies. There is, for instance, a great deal of Ringu/The Ring in this movie, and the comparisons are pretty obvious. There’s also a substantial amount of It Follows in this, along with a touch of a film like Oculus, and a touch of Mama as well. And while there are some very good and interesting moments here, the ending is unconscionably goofy and disappointing.

Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is a clinical psychologist who meets with a graduate student named Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey) who witnessed one of her professors kill himself in a terribly gruesome way a few days earlier. Laura has complained of being followed by an entity that appears only to her and has a terrible rictus of a smile on its face, telling her that she is going to die. A moment later, Laura screams that the thing is in the room with them, and a few moments later, has that terrible smile on her own face and slits her own throat while Rose watches.

And, shortly thereafter, the smiling entity starts pursuing Rose. This causes some serious disruptions in her life, naturally. Her boss (Kal Penn) forces her to take a week off. Tensions rise between her and her fiancĂ© (Jessie T. Usher) and between her and her sister (Gillian Zinser). Even her therapist (Robin Weigert) thinks that Rose’s behavior is starting to be problematic, and attributes this to Rose’s trauma stemming from seeing her mother commit suicide years earlier. The only person who believes her is Joel (Kyle Gallner), a cop and her ex.

But, of course there is something pursuing Rose. A little detective work aided by Joel reveals that there is a string of similar incidents. One person witnesses a brutal and horrifying suicide, and then within a week, that person commits suicide in a disturbing way as well, passing on the curse to the next person. Only one person has survived in the string of deaths—a man (Rob Morgan) who committed a brutal murder instead of killing himself. And, right on schedule, a few days after this happened, a witness to that murder committed suicide, starting cycle all over again.

It's a decent set-up for a horror film, honestly, but it really is a collection of driving factors in other horror movies combined into one. We have the one week (maximum) deadline from The Ring, that gives this its driving force. We have our cursed people having the equivalent of waking hallucinations like in Oculus or perhaps Mirrors. And, of course, we have an inheritable curse like It Follows. Toss all of those ingredients into a blender and season liberally with jump scares, and the end result is Smile.

This is a frustrating movie for a couple of reasons. It’s actually a pretty good horror movie, all things being equal. Because of this, it’s kind of depressing that it relies so much on jump scares. Virtually all of the scares here come from sudden appearances, quick pans, or something similar. There are moments (like at Rose’s nephew’s birthday party) that shoot for something different, and these are better moments in the film.

What is very upsetting, though, is how depressing the ending is. The last 10 minutes or so of Smile turn into a monster movie, and for something that has tried to riff on It Follows, to have the ending turn essentially into the stupid ending of 10 Cloverfield Lane feels like such a tragic lack of imagination that it effectively spoils the whole movie.

That’s the biggest issue here—as derivative as this is, I enjoyed it well enough until the ending, which made me roll my eyes at it. It turned a movie I liked well enough into one I ended up being angry at.

Why to watch Smile: It’s actually pretty scary.
Why not to watch: Well, it’s scary up until the last few minutes.


  1. I liked this, but I was irrationally bothered that the minute they established a pattern, the cop didn't do anything with it. Like, that's enough to get it on paper, right? It also seemed strange that no one noticed that before.

    1. Yeah, there's a lot here that doesn't work. Like...once you know that there is this series of suicides and suicide witnesses...close your eyes.

  2. I might watch this if it arrives on a streaming service near me hopefully for Halloween.

  3. As you probably now, horror movies are not my jam (I deal poorly with jump scares), but my wife loves horror and she invited me to watch it with her in the cinema last autumn. The fact the I had to look away for a third of the movie is a good indicator of how effective it is. I cannot say I enjoyed the movie though and the ending was very unsatisfying, even to me.

    1. I liked a lot of where this was going, but the last few minutes turned it into a stupid monster movie. There were so many better options possible, and instead we got this.