Polygon is reporting on new horror, sci-fi, and action films coming to theaters and streaming for the 2022 Fantastic Fest. This review was written in conjunction with the premiere of the films at the Fantastic Fest.
Smile, Parker Finns' first horror film, has been carefully crafted to appeal to different audiences. For someone who isnt familiar with horror, its a straightforward and simple scarefest, full of big, shocking scares and terrifying chills.
Finn's technique isn't that powerful for a savvy horror crowd, who can spot similarities to other popular horror films and anticipate the outcome from the start, without giving up a silent You know what happens next, right? It's easy to see what Finn is doing with his characters at any moment, and where he's aiming the story, and that seems to be entirely deliberate.
Finn's script takes almost no time to establish who his protagonist is before his world starts to unravel. She first encounters a badly shaken patient who claims she's haunted by some sort of strange creature no one else can see.
Rose appears to be having paranoid delusions when she tries to explain the shape-changing, invisible, malevolent curse-creature to others. She confesses to her blandly kind boyfriend Trevor (Jessie T. Usher), her shady older sister Holly (Gillian Zinser), and her patrician former therapy Madeline (Robin Weigert, in a role that's light years away from her role as Deadwoods Calamity Jane).
Smile is often a gimmicky, even corny horror film that is stuffed with so many jump-scares that the whole movie feels silly. Finn uses abrupt, loud sound cues and brutally quick cuts to get viewers yelping and flinching over things as minor as Rose biting into a hamburger or cutting off a hangnail. All of this makes Smile a satisfying ride, if unusually unrelenting.
Finn does the job of a magician, first explaining what is done and then making it so effective that it remains a magic trick anyway. After the Rings beats, Rose experiences an unexpected event, finds herself on a dangerous deadline, draws in her reluctant but loyal ex to help her, and then makes a surprising discovery.
Smile's structure is much the same as in It Follows, with a threat passed from person to person implacably towards its next victim, while wearing a wide range of faces, increasing the sense of danger until viewers can't trust anyone they see on screen to be human, thus placing them neatly inside Roses' increasingly disintegrating mindset.
Smile's human component is as carefully calibrated as the jump scares, in ways designed to keep the audience worrying if they arent flinching. When Rose discovers that Holly has a sweet 7-year-old boy, or that Rose's helpful ex Joel (Kyle Gallner) is sensitive, open-hearted, and still in love with her, she establishes some particularly powerful emotional ground.
The main character in the film adds to the sense of dread as well. From the moment a policeman dismisses his responsibility to investigate a horrific death by writing the victim off with a ruthless lying man She sounds fucking crazy to me!, it's evident that Smile is at heart about the stigma around mental illness and the desire to dismiss or demonize individuals who are experiencing it.
Finn discovers fertile ground in the vast and potentially unbridgeable divide between sufferers and even well-intentioned onlookers. Rose, who is living with a terror she doesn't know how to combat, is likely to be sympathetic to the audience. But it's also easy to see why others would find it difficult to deal with a woman who is acting erratically and even dangerously, while blaming it all on some unimaginable fear-demon.
Finn chooses to avoid this route, making it quite clear throughout that something supernatural is at work. Its a reasonable move to make in a film that wants the audience to anticipate the worst that might happen, while authentically caring for those who may be impacted by it.
Finn seems to understand that people may go to horror films for different reasons, some more philosophical, some more emotional. Either way, he makes sure that everyone leaves satisfied, and at least shaken.
Smile will be released in theaters on September 30.