Is mental illness contagious? Is suicide driven by emotions like guilt or an unseen demon? Those questions are the foundation for Smile, a brutally efficient horror film by first time director Parker Finn. The movie stars Sosie Bacon as Dr. Rose Cotter, a psychiatrist who spends every waking moment treating patients at a psychiatric ward. One day, a PhD student named Laura (Caitlin Stasey) arrives on a stretcher in what Rose initially believes is a full-blown manic episode. Ever since she saw her professor kill himself in front of her four days ago, Laura’s been seeing things. Something evil is playing with her mind, pretending to be people she knows. When Rose tries the calm and understanding doctor approach, Laura freaks out. Before help can arrive, Laura brutally kills herself while sporting an insidious smile.
In the following days, Rose begins to experience the same symptoms as Laura. Her fiance Trevor shies away from her when Rose confesses that she’s been cursed. Her sister Holly shuns her after a horrifying mishap at her nephew’s birthday party. Fortunately for Rose, her ex-boyfriend Joel is willing to help. Together, they discover that Rose and Laura are only the latest links in a long chain of suicides, each one having witnessed the previous victim’s trauma-inducing act. Somehow, the apparant suicide of Rose’s mother years ago, as well as her lingering guilt over that incident, factor into her current torment. Can Rose find a way to alleviate the curse before it’s too late?
Smile follows the pattern of many horror movies that feature curses. With rare exceptions, they all feature a hero or heroine who is doomed. Will there be a loophole that will save Rose in the end, as in The Ring? Or will she succumb to the evil intent on destroying her in the end, as in Drag Me To Hell? It doesn’t really matter, because the movie is almost workmanlike in how intent it is on scaring you out of your wits. Like The Conjuring, another very effective scare factory, Smile does what it does with efficiency and confidence. I could accuse it of being unoriginal, but that’s shallow criticism for a move that takes such delight in scaring its audience. Highly Recommended.
On a gloomy morning at a psychiatric hospital in New Jersey, Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon, Kevin’s daughter) greets a familiar patient named Carl (Jack Sochet). He’s in the throes of a manic episode, chanting about how he and everyone around him is going to die. Rose is able to shake him out of his mania just enough so that he can begin a treatment regimen. Before long, another patient arrives on a stretcher who is even more troubled than Carl.
The patient’s name is Laura (Caitlin Stasey), a PhD student who just witnessed her professor commit suicide four days ago. He didn’t just commit suicide: he did it in a horrible, traumatizing way–by hitting himself in the head with a hammer until he died. Laura tells Rose that something is in her head, making her see things. It appears as other people, but she knows that something evil is behind their faces. Laura tries to calm her down by stating that when you’re in a psychotic state, things that are only in your mind appear real to you. Realizing that Rose thinks that she is having a mental breakdown, Laura shrieks and falls onto a coffee table, breaking a vase. When Rose calls for help, the room becomes quiet. When she turns around, Rose sees Laura standing in front of her, smiling disturbingly. Laura kills herself by slashing her face and neck with a shard of glass. Rose slides to the floor, crying.
At home, Rose tries to calm herself down with some wine. Her fiance Trevor (Jessie T. Usher) arrives and comforts her, but she neglects to tell him about the incident. The two meet Rose’s sister Holly (Gillian Zinser) and her husband for dinner. It’s a strained affair, with Holly criticizing her sister for guilting herself into a low-paying career because of their mother’s suicide. (What are siblings for, if not dinner arguments over petty, long-simmering recriminations?) That night, she’s awakened by a figure calling to her from the darkness. She gets up and listens to the audio recording of her session with Laura. She hears something saying her name in the audio, and is startled by a figure standing next to her. Trevor comes down stairs and Rose confides what happened that day.
The following morning at work, Rose sees Carl sitting upright in his bed, smiling. Rose snaps her fingers and Carl begins yelling the same maniacal chant from yesterday. Rose orders him confined. Dr. Morgan Desai (Kal Penn!), Rose’s supervisor, doesn’t understand why the usually timid Carl would suddenly become violent. He gives Rose a week of paid leave to get herself together. With forced free time, she decides to attend her nephew Jackson’s birthday party and buys him a gift. She also visits her former therapist, Dr. Madeline Northcott (Robin Weigert), who refuses to prescribe an antipsychotic medication. (Maybe after a few more sessions.) Rose’s pet cat, “Mustache” ominously goes missing that evening.
At the birthday party, Jackson is shocked that his present from his Aunt contains the now deceased Mustache. (Pets never make it past the first act in these movies.) When Rose confides to Trevor that she believes she’s been cursed by some evil, he shuts down and sleeps on the couch. (A typical fair-weather fiancee.) Remembering that Laura stated how her professor was smiling before he killed himself, Rose visits the professor’s wife, Victoria (Judy Reyes, from Scrubs!). Under the pretense of being a reporter, Rose gets Victoria to tell her about her husband’s quick descent. It was only a matter of days, and he said he was seeing things, like Laura. Victoria shows Rose her husband’s study, filled with drawings of a smiling evil being. When Rose lets slip that she’s experiencing the same things as Victoria’s husband, Victoria throws her out.
Rose tries to find sympathy with Holly, but her sister thinks she’s crazy and turns her back on her. Rose has a horrifying vision while sitting in her car, and Jackson sees the episode through his bedroom window. When Rose arrives home, she finds that Trevor revealed everything to Dr. Northcott and invited her over for an intervention of sorts. Rose accuses Trevor of not being willing to be by her side in her hour of need, which is a fair point.
Fortunately for Rose, she has an ex-boyfriend named Joel (Kyle Gallner) who is a cop. (Is it just me or does every haunted person in a horror movie know someone in law enforcement?) Rose gets Joel to look up the case file for the professor, and together they view security camera footage of the suicide he witnessed. (That person was also smiling.) Drilling backwards, there is a long chain of people who first witnessing a horrific suicide and killed themselves a few days later. The only exception is Robert Talley (Rob Morgan), who killed a complete stranger and confessed to the crime.
Rose and Joel visit Robert in jail, with Rose pretending that she’s there “on behalf of a patient”. (Which is very similar to the “asking for a friend” ruse.) Robert tells her that he researched the problem and found similar chains, including one in Brazil. He says that the only way to rid herself of the curse is to kill someone and have a witness. When Rose exclaims that she’s not going to kill a complete stranger, Robert figures out that she’s the one who’s cursed. He yells for the guards and for Rose to get out of there. As they leave, Rose doesn’t tell Joel Robert’s helpful-yet-awful advice.
Back at home, Dr. Northcott pays Rose a house call. To Rose’s surprise, the doctor calls on the phone to check in on Rose at the same time. (Kudos to the filmmakers for casting the perpetually-smiling Robin Weigert in the role of the doctor.) Rose then drives to the hospital, where she has a vision of murdering Carl in front of Dr. Desai as a means of passing the curse off on him. (How funny would that be, Kal Penn?) Rose awakens from her vision to find herself still in her car. Believing that she can remove the curse by confronting her guilt over her mom’s suicide, she heads to her childhood home.
Naturally, the home is dilapidated and without electricity. (A haunted house if there ever was one.) After night falls, Rose confronts an apparition of her mother. Rose admits that she let her die out of fear over her mother’s mental disease and refused to call 911. Unfortunately, Rose’s confession doesn’t result in the curse being lifted. Instead, Rose’s mom transforms into a towering, ugly person. The being tries to strangle Rose, but she manages to set the evil being ablaze and drives to Joel’s apartment.
Joel regretfully lets Rose in, and she pleads with him to watch her while she sleeps. Joel smiles the same evil smile that has tormented her and says that he’ll never leave her. Rose scrambles out of the apartment, only to find she’s still at the house. When Joel arrives at the house, Rose rushes inside and locks the door. The evil being is there and reveals his hideously awful face. Rose allows the evil to enter her. Joel breaks down the door, only to witness Rose smiling before she sets herself on fire.
Unlike recent additions to the “brainy horror” genre (Barbarian, Nope, etc.), Smile doesn’t harbor aspirations of reinventing the horror genre. The movie doesn’t set out to subvert your expectations or address topical subjects. Instead, Smile is single-mindedly focused on scaring you out of your wits. The way it goes about its business reminded me of James Wan’s The Conjuring, another movie with no pretenses beyond being a very scary horror movie. Both are filled with creepy moments and jump-scares, and by the end you may feel exhausted by the experience, but you won’t go away feeling like you’ve been cheated. Smile is a funhouse horror movie of the highest order, one that played me like a fiddle from beginning to end, and I enjoyed every terrifying moment of it.
The plot of Smile is a simple yet very effective one often utilized by horror movies: the curse. In this movie, Rose Cotter is unknowingly afflicted with the curse by a patient, and only has a matter of days before the evil being forces her to kill herself. The curse element is so prevalent in horror movies, it could be a subgenre all by itself. Sometimes, as in The Empty Man, it’s fitted alongside other horror movie tropes, like “the crazy cult”. Or in the case of Wan’s Conjuring movies, it imperils the supporting characters and serves as the impetus for the lead characters to do heroic deeds. Smile specifically reminded me of two movies that feature curses: The Ring and Drag Me To Hell.
The Ring is an outlier among horror movies where the lead is afflicted with a curse. Rachel figures that as long as she and her son watch that awful video tape every couple of days, the ghost will let them live. I remember thinking at the time what a novel solution that was, to use what cursed you as a means to survive. Smile briefly plays lip-service to that kind of “out clause” when Rose learns that she can pass the curse on by killing someone else, but she quickly rejects the idea. Smile is more akin to Drag Me To Hell. The audience anticipates Rose’s imminent demise for the majority of the movie, then is tricked into believing she’s somehow survived her fate, only for her to be killed anyway.
When a character like Rose dies in a horror movie, that act serves to restore the natural order of things before the curse appeared. When the characters who are cursed don’t die, it’s a subversive outcome. Case in point: The Nightmare on Elm Street movies. The oddest entry in the franchise was the one that proclaimed “Freddy’s dead”, which didn’t feel right to me. Fortunately, the producers realized their mistake and put Freddy and his curse back into service for future generations.
While the curse may be the catalyst in Smile, guilt is the reactive agent. Like Pennywise in It, the evil being in Smile (“Smiley”?) preys on Rose’s guilt over letting her mother die from an overdose. Smile is mum on whether the evil preyed on the guilt of its previous victims before Rose, but based on what Smiley tells her, I’m guessing that he used similar tactics on his other victims to batter them into submission so it can enter them.
The climactic sequence in the cabin was masterfully done, raking up there with 1408 and Oculus among horror movies that show how doomed the hero is once evil is running amok in their mind. If there is a message in Smile, it would have to be how guilt is a trap we set for ourselves, one that eventually dooms us all. That also aligns perfectly within the movie’s use of a smile as a metaphor, in how it can either represent or mask our actual feelings. Who hasn’t been like Rose, forcing a smile and saying “I’m fine” when things definitely are not?
If I were to accuse Smile of anything, it would be that it has an especially bleak view of those suffering from mental health issues and the meager systems in place to support those people. Institutions like Rose’s hospital receive and discharge patients like Carl so regularly, the staff is on a first-name basis with him. A for-profit therapist like Dr. Northcott is inclined to delay prescribing much-needed medication in favor of repeat business.
Smile presents a more damning portrait of how people react to a loved one suffering a mental health crisis. Aside from her ex-boyfriend Joel, every other person Rose sought help or sympathy from rebuffed. The movie implies that with rare exception, people generally are more like Trevor and Holly, looking to cut-bait at the first signs of trouble. Things are no better from an institutional standpoint. Carl has been back to Rose’s hospital so many times he’s known on a first-name basis. Rose can’t even get her therapist to write her a prescription for an antipsychotic. I have no way of knowing if the film was actually intended as commentary on the sorry state of mental health care today, or if the connection I made is purely coincidental. Horror movies are cynical by nature, so maybe I’m reading far too much into what could also be described as typical horror movie plot beats.
I’ve name-dropped at least a dozen movies that Smile is similar to, and I could easily come up with a dozen more. What I haven’t done is explain why Smile is a great horror movie. Earlier I alluded to the movie having the same workmanlike quality that The Conjuring had. Like that movie, Smile is exceptionally well crafted, both in front of the camera and behind it. What the movie lacks in originality, it makes up for in execution.
In his feature film debut, writer-director Parker Finn proves that he is one heck of a filmmaker. He doesn’t have the visual razzle-dazzle of James Wan, but in all fairness, neither did Wan when he directed Saw. With a modest budget at hand, Finn relies on good old-fashioned stagecraft to sell the material. The opening scene when Rose’s patient kills herself is an excellent example. The tension in the scene is built through excellent acting, editing and sound design. The shocking culmination of the scene does feature blood, but the scene would have worked just as well if the act wasn’t depicted graphically. For example, the movie could have shown Laura killing herself from behind, with Rose reacting in the background. I’m not saying the movie should have done this, because taming things down is a craven tactic used only to garner a PG-13 rating. The scares in Smile are so impactful because they felt real instead of achieved primarily through technical wizardry.
Horror movies have often relied on the “is it a dream or is it reality” stunt, and I mentioned a couple of them earlier. Many times these scenes feel like gimmicks designed to jerk the viewer around. While Smile has several of these scenes, all very effective, I never felt like the movie was playing games with me. I admire Finn for taking the time to explain the ground rules up front, so that when Rose started seeing freaky things, I would know that it was all part of the plan, and not just stuff being thrown at me to get me to jump. The fact that the movie was able to scare me so easily in spite of telegraphing how it would be doing it, speaks to how well this movie was thought out.
While Finn’s direction is key to the movie working so well, it would all be for naught without Sosie Bacon’s performance as Rose. (Yes, she’s Kevin Bacon’s daughter.) Bacon has to convince us that she’s someone we should care about, even though she’s done something terrible–if not unforgivable in her past. She cares about her patients, but she’s driven to help the mentally ill because of her mom’s presumed suicide. When the movie reveals that Rose let her mom die out of fear, I still felt sympathetic for her. A ten-year old child should never have to live with a parent whose emotions are an unending roller coaster. Initially Rose believed her actions were justified, but then felt guilty as she grew older. As with any horror movie, the impending doom of the hero means nothing when you don’t don’t like the hero or feel sorry for what they are going through. Bacon’s impassioned performance in Smile ranks among the best of the scream queens.
As you may have noticed in the plot summary above, the supporting cast of Smile features several actors I would not have expected to see in a horror movie. Noted funnyman Kal Penn plays Dr. Desai, and he’s surprisingly convincing in a dramatic role. His casting has to be the most off-the-wall choice to portray a doctor in a horror movie since Herbert Lom in The Dead Zone. Scrubs alumnus Judy Reyes’s performance as the haunted widow Victoria was very moving, reminding me how good she was in that series.
Robin Weigert, an actor I’ve seen on many other movies and television shows, also stood out as Dr. Northcott. She’s similar to other horror movie therapists who say they “want to help you” but really mean “more paid sessions first, please”. What differentiates Weigert’s take on the part is how Smile turns her ever-present smile into something sinister and ultimately evil. Kyle Gallner was good as the sad-sack cop Joel, and reminded me a lot of James Ransone’s deputy in Sinister. Nick Arapoglou was hilarious as Greg, the doofus husband who always manages to say the wrong thing. Jack Sochet was great as the troubled Carl, pivoting from being helpless to menacing.
Exceptional horror movies usually include great work behind the camera, and Smile is no exception. DP Charlie Sarroff effectively captures the terrifying aspect encroaching upon her normally comforting landscape. Editor Elliot Greenberg keeps the action moving along, notably hitting the “jump” button only a few times. Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s suitably creepy score is effectively meshed with the movie’s excellent sound design, creating an aural tapestry that symbolizes how Rose’s insanity is taking over her world. Smile is the eeriest sounding movie I’ve seen since 2021’s Candyman.