Here’s that rarest of things, a horror movie that considers itself scary enough to actually warrant an 18 certificate. In the case of Smile, a confident debut from writer/director Parker Finn, it seems perfectly justified. It’s a long while since a movie unsettled me quite as effectively as this one – and all because of the simple solid gold truth: you can spend millions on fancy effects, but nothing is quite as terrifying as somebody grinning at you.
Indeed, perhaps Grin would have been a more accurate title.
Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is working long hours at an emergency psychiatric unit and, many years after the event, she’s still haunted by memories of her mother’s death from a drugs overdose. One day a young woman called Laura Weaver (Caitlin Sasey) is admitted to the unit, clearly terrified by a series of visions she’s having, in which characters from her past are visiting her.
The people don’t say anything – they just grin at her. Then, before Rose quite knows what’s happening, Laura has committed suicide, right in front of her.
Rose is urged to take time off to rest but, as you might imagine, that’s no easy matter, because now Rose is starting to experience visions of her own. Her partner, Trevor (Jessie T Usher), is decidedly unsympathetic, telling her he hasn’t got time for such nonsense, and her sister, Holly (Gillian Sinster) – who is also troubled by what happened in the past – soon has powerful reasons to be unsympathetic too, after Rose’s memorable visit to her young son’s birthday party. Only Rose’s ex -partner, Joel (Kyle Gadner), a cop, seems to be ready to offer any kind of help…
It would be a crime to give away any more about the plot. Suffice to say that Finn handles the gradually unfolding narrative with consummate skill, aided by strong performances from the cast and a brilliantly nerve-shredding soundtrack by Christobal Tapia de Veer. Jump-scares are often over-used in films like this, but Finn manages to catch me out time and time again. What’s more, while many horror movies stigmatise those suffering from mental illness, Finn manages to use the trope in a more respectful way, walking that tricky tightrope without ever overbalancing. The title is cunningly referenced again and again, and the idea that past events can keep coming back to haunt a person is effectively demonstrated. The result is a narrative that holds me in an icy grip for almost its entire duration.
It’s therefore sad to report that, in the last five minutes or so, the film stumbles slightly, offering a shonky effects sequence that feels like an unnecessary contrivance, and a conclusion that suggests that somebody already has an eye on turning Smile into a franchise. I really hope that doesn’t happen. With such an assured first outing under his belt, I’m interested to see what other ideas Finn has, because – ending aside – this is a superior slice of horror.
Meanwhile, those who like to be terrorised by what they’re watching should strap themselves in for a wild and traumatic experience. As I leave the auditorium, I notice that a member of staff is smiling at me…