October has arrived, and with it, the start of the spooky season on-screen. We get a pretty good one to lead off in “Smile”. Basically, this is a contagion story, like “The Ring” or “IT Follows”. Some mysterious force is passing along a curse that is leading to the death of those who end up in it’s path. For ninety percent of the film, it sticks to this concept and the horror is based on creeping psychological moments and disturbing deaths that follow those moments. It is only in the last few minutes that it turns into a creature feature and loses track of what was working so well up to then.
The cast is made up of familiar faces from television, and they all do a credible job selling their moments. Sosie Bacon comes across as a sincere therapist who has the job of trying to help a disturbed young woman who is having bizarre paranoid vision. Her early calm demeanor and sympathetic face make what happens in the course of the film more horrifying. We know that this is a good person who is having something terrible take over her life. The fact that what happens is largely depicted as her own psyche falling to pieces is what makes the story compelling. It is a trope in these kinds of movies, that the victims come across as disturbed, which is why their explanations of supernatural origin are dismissed. You would think that a psychology professional would be able to get around that and speak to others in a way that is more rational and convincing. When the patient is yourself, it is not so easy.
There are a few death scenes that account for part of the horror in the film. The initial suicide is plenty disturbing, although the medical professional’s call for help should have been responded to quicker, the slow execution of the moment makes it visually compelling. Other deaths are mostly suggested and displayed in brief forms. The truth is that this film gets most of it’s horror impulse from jump scares, scattered throughout the movie. The jump scare is a cheap tactic but when it works, the impact on the audience can be quite chilling. There were two that worked on me, and one of them gave me the kind of shiver deep down that we really want from a horror film.
An important component of the plot is that the witness to the death must be traumatized by it for the contagion to take hold. We know from early on that Dr. Cotter, the character played by Bacon, witnessed her own Mother’s suicide after having been neglected as a child. She is in essence suffering from a survivor’s form of PTSD. The interactions with her sister and fiance are good opportunities for us to have insight into how the long term suffering is masking the current crisis. We know also, that she has had a failed relationship in the past because of these issues. The best parts of the movie deal with the tender way she is trying to hold it together in the current situation, and how she is failing at doing so.
Because it is a movie and not just a play, we are going to get some visual representations of those inner thoughts, and that is a tip off from early on that we cannot trust the things that we are seeing. Sometimes they are presented as nightmares, or daydreams, but there are a couple of extended points that are fake outs and undermine the audience’s ability to identify with the character. In the climax, we get a visualization of the traumatic id that turns the end of the movie into a monster story rather than a psychological thriller. It’s a pretty good visualization but it feels unnecessary and I thought it detracted from the ultimate finishing moment.
In spite of a few missteps, the movie largely succeeds at being frightening, thoughtful and entertaining. There were some nice scary moments and the film takes the time to let the pressure build. I’d say it is a reasonably good start to the Halloween onslaught of horror. Enjoy your goosebumps this month.