No surprise here—current box office analysis has revealed that fantasy, action and scary movies are 2022’s box office winners (and perhaps saviors), and this year’s horror films—stalkers, entities and even killer clowns—are, as ever, en vogue. Yet unlike years where the horror output has been largely derivative and slapdash, 2022 has produced a number of quality thrillers, intelligent in design and intensely cinematic, several featuring substantive female characters performed by actresses delivering emotionally complex portraits.
In Watcher, Maika Monroe was a gaslit, latter-day Polanski newlywed and target of a mysterious voyeur amidst the isolation of Bucharest. Resurrection found Rebecca Hall in typical top form as a guilt-ridden biotech exec suffering a psychological break upon the return of a sadistic former lover and abuser. Pearl featured star Mia Goth in a juicy period turn as a cinephile, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm turned Lizzie Borden. And now, in the very scary new Smile, Sosie Bacon (daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick) is superb as a psych ward therapist who witnesses a patient’s suicide before becoming the target of a supernatural murderer.
Dr. Rose Cotter (Bacon), a compassionate New Jersey doctor who loves her patients so much that she would “do it for free,” spends her days performing intake for a collection of damaged new patients. But during a routine initial assessment, a traumatized PhD student (Caitlin Stasey) claiming to be pursued by an evil apparition capable of changing its visage, abruptly slashes her own throat.
Rose is so disturbed by the encounter that she begins seeing the young woman’s ghost—or so she thinks—everywhere from home to public, and her concerned boss (Kal Penn) quickly puts her on leave. Yet instead of recuperation, Rose slowly begins to understand that the ill-fated patient’s curse—a sickly smiling demon preying upon trauma—has been transferred onto her, the spectral stalker given access by her own unresolved childhood trauma. The curse appears inescapable, and in a terrifically tense scene the great Rob Morgan shows up as an incarcerated killer suggesting an unorthodox way to break free of its grip.
With an increasingly incredulous fiancé (Jessie T. Usher), exasperated shrew sister (Gillian Zinser) and psychobabble spouting shrink (Robin Wiegert) in disbelief, Rose turns to an ex-boyfriend cop (Kyle Gallner) for help unraveling the mystery. While their discoveries are nothing we haven’t seen in It Follows or The Ring, from which this movie derives its premise, writer-director Parker Finn, in a picture of sheer, escalating tension, expertly delivers shocks like no other film this year. While Smile may not be what’s come to be known as “elevated” horror, it elevates your pulse and tension with superb precision.
Deploying a shattering sound design built on disturbing, often unidentifiable aural effects and a truly unsettling score courtesy of Cristobal Tapia de Veer, which is always cranked up to 11, Smile contains perhaps a few too many jump scares and at 115 minutes, may have played more efficiently at 95. Yet the padded running time allows Bacon, shot in close-up sequences of psychological and supernatural terror, to deliver a believable character the actress takes very seriously—one who must face her own demons, as well as those from hell.
Smile, which contains enough shocks for three pictures, is undeniably frightening from its visceral opener to its macabre, final sequence manifestation of what has only been suggested up to that moment. Kudos to Finn and Bacon for a film that raises goosebumps in its first ten minutes and sustains them to its final shot. Truly the only quibble here is the use of The Chordettes’ 1958 hit Lollipop immediately upon the closing credits—diffusing the abject terror of the final scene.