Derivative, jump-scary horror tale not much to 'Smile' about
"Smile" - ★ ★
Normally, a starless, derivative, overly long, jump-scare-saturated horror movie like "Smile" would be sent directly to streaming on a digital platform and bypass traditional theatrical distribution.
Paramount Studios originally intended to release "Smile" on Paramount +, then booked it in theaters after test screening scores popped much higher than expected.
The studio chiefs apparently had subbasement expectations for this one.
(But never sell Paramount executives short when it comes to horror. By nationally distributing and heavily marketing Sean Cunningham's super cheapie "Friday the 13th," Paramount created not only the most influential motion picture of the 1980s, but a cash-cow franchise.)
In "Smile," an emergency psych ward therapist, Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), discovers that when strange people brandishing sinister smiles begin to haunt and taunt her, and only she can see them, her fiancé (Jessie T. Usher), ex-boyfriend cop (Kyle Gallner), sister (Gillian Zinser) and even her empathetic boss (Kal Penn) think she's losing her mind.
Rose first witnesses this fatal phenomenon when treating a frightened young woman named Laura (Caitlin Stasey), who hysterically insists some invisible demonic force wants to kill her -- and does, but only after she dons that creepy smile, then slits her own throat with a pottery shard.
(I submit that Stasey would have created a better lead character than Bacon, mainly because she supplies the most disturbing, skin-crawling grin in the movie, and later scenes would have significantly benefited from Stasey's committed creepy countenance.)
As Rose investigates, she discovers a long line of horribly violent, gory suicides connected by that sinister smile just before death. (Can it be a coincidence that "Smile" comes out during Suicide Prevention Awareness month?)
Writer/director Parker Finn previously created only two horror film shorts (one of them, "Laura Hasn't Slept," clearly the inspiration for this feature) so it makes sense that "Smile" comes on strong for the first 30 minutes with inventively jumpy tricks combining visual and audio elements humming in horrific harmony.
Then, "Smile" turns upside down (as the camera frequently does, clumsily suggesting Rose's world has done the same) and peters out in a succession of numbingly overloaded and increasingly dopey "it was only a dream" cheats.
To be fair, "Smile" elevates, for a while, the standard-issue jump-scare to an art form, aided by Elliot Greenberg's impeccably timed editing and Chilean composer Cristobal "Cristo" Tapia de Ve's disorienting, ingeniously jolting mix of distorted music and shock-effect noise.
Even so, these early flourishes fail to fling Finn's film into the same horror stratosphere as David Robert Mitchell's "It Follows," a heart-racing invisible demon opus Finn clearly emulates.
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Starring: Sosie Bacon, Jessie T. Usher, Kyle Gallner, Kal Penn, Caitlin Stasey
Directed by: Parker Finn
Other: A Paramount Pictures release in theaters. Rated R for language, violence. 115 minutes