It does not take long to see why Parker Finn’s feature debut Smile became the year’s highest grossing horror film. Carrying a premise that feels familiar, yet oddly fresh in its execution, the film is an entertaining thriller that leaves just enough to the viewers imagination. If there is one thing this film understands it is that the scariest things often reside in our minds.
As if stitching together the best aspects of It Follows and The Ring, Finn weaves a chilling scarf of psychological terror that wraps itself tightly around the audience’s necks. The film kicks into gear when Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) meets Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey), a PhD student who witnessed her professor take their own life in front of her. Haunted by the image, and the fact that the professor was smiling as the incident occurred, Laura is having visions of an entity stalking her. Sometimes it resembles people she knows, other times complete strangers.
Before Cotter has time to professionally assess what Laura has told her, the student begins displaying signs of a seizure. One that will result in Laura slitting her own throat while holding a sinister smile on her face. Rattle by the experience, Cotter soon finds herself experiencing visions she cannot explain. These hallucinations begin to impact her relationships with her sister Holly (Gillian Zinser), her fiancée Trevor (Jessie T. Usher) and her boss Dr. Desai (Kal Penn). As those around her assume she is losing her mind, she believes something bigger than that is at play.
Deciphering the mystery of what Cotter is experiencing, and its possible links to her past, are part of what makes Smile enjoyable. As she and local cop Joel (Kyle Gallner), who is investigating Laura’s death, search for answers, Finn leaves breadcrumbs for the audience to follow. There is the constant sense of dread hanging around Cotter. Even when one has a better understanding of what is at play, many questions still remain which only adds to the heighten tension of the film.
Similar to It Follows, Finn treats the notion of a curse as something that must be passed on rather than eradicated. By rooting the terror in the active participation of trauma, the film is able to construct a new horror monster out of something that many people can identify with. While the horror genre is filled with tales fueled by trauma, Smile ponders whether one can ever eliminate the guilt and memories of the tragic incidents that ultimately shape us.
This internal conflict is reflected in the growing isolation Cotter finds herself in. Whether panning slowly across empty rooms or using tight close ups on Cotter’s face, Finn’s camera emphasizes the sense of loneliness even when the character is physically surrounded by others. It also helps that the director gets great performances from both Stasey and Bacon. While Stasey establishes the eerie tone of the film, making a simple smile the ultimate sign of evil, Bacon successfully carries the bulk of the film on her back. Tasked with bringing emotional vulnerability while trying to avoid the descent into madness, Bacon is a joy to watch.
The Blu-ray dives into the performances, including a great cameo by Rob Morgan, and other aspects of the film in the “Something’s Wrong with Rose: Making Smile” featurette. While informative, the real highlight of the disc is the inclusion of Finn’s short film Laura Hasn’t Slept. The inception for what later would become Smile, and featuring Caitlin Stasey giving another great performance as Laura, the short is another example of Finn’s talents as a director.
Building a horror film that feels both familiar and invigorating at the same time, Finn’s Smile delivers enough chills to satisfy.
Bonus Features: Commentary by Director Parker Finn; Something’s Wrong with Rose: Making Smile; Flies on the Wall: Inside the Score, Deleted Scenes; Laura Hasn’t Slept – Original Short with Introduction by Director Parker Finn