I mostly have scowling faces for “Smile,” a downright unsettling and bland new horror flick that squeezes as many miles as possible out of a crooked smile.
Parker Finn’s directorial debut, which hits theaters Friday, adapts his own 11-minute short into a thriller full of spooky leaps about a hospital emergency room therapist, Dr. Rose Cutter (Sosie Bacon), whose visit with a newly admitted patient quickly turns horrible. The young woman (Caitlin Stasey), mad with fear, suddenly flashes an ear-to-ear smile before slicing a gash up to her ears in her neck.
Rose first dismisses the troubling encounter. It’s clear that despite her profession, this has been her way of dealing with trauma ever since she witnessed her mother’s overdose death as a child. Soon, Rose sees that creepy smile on other faces. Increasingly unhinged and paranoid, she believes she has been cursed by an evil presence which she believes is passed from person to person much the same way the invisible demon from “It Follows” was. transferred by sex.
The devilish grin is both the movie’s poster-ready image and an impossible-to-miss metaphor for putting a bright face to unexamined pain. Somewhere, you can imagine, the Joker stamps his foot, annoyed.
“Smile,” of course, isn’t the first movie to think trouble can hide behind a smile. It’s just one of many spin-off elements from “Smile,” a horror movie that makes a few weak gestures to slide into the so-called high variety of horror (like a few upside-down shots reminiscent of the very upper “Midsommar”). But there’s nothing about the movie’s mushy cinematography or flat atmospheres that suggests anything other than cheap thrills.
Trauma, of course, has become a hot topic in Hollywood in recent years. “Smile” is far from the first to trade on trauma as a plot device, but it does so perhaps more than any other film I can remember.
There are moments here and there that suggest “Smile” might actually invest in its protagonist’s heartbreak. Bacon, daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, is incredibly committed to the role, and her spiraling fear of both the malignant force that haunts her and her own tenuous grip on reality is by far the best thing about “Smile.” “. (OK, the best thing is terrific character Rob Morgan, but his appearance is extremely brief.) But at every turn, “Smile” detours through a horror cliche, eventually leading to a monster in an isolated cabin.
I say. It should come as no surprise to anyone that a movie marketed with creepy smiling fans at MLB games might not actually have genuine concerns about pain and healing on its mind. But that still makes “Smile” a cynical, superficial work unlikely to put a you-know-what on too many faces.
“Smile,” a Paramount Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for strong violent content, gruesome imagery and language. Duration: 115 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.