For an Unoriginal Horror, 'Smile' is Really Scary

'Smile' isn't trying to be original. Or at least, I bloody hope it isn't.
Arielle Richards
Melbourne, AU
​Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Minutes into Smile (2022), it was obvious that the ride would be a cliche-fuelled rollercoaster through all of the psychological horror genre’s finest tropes. Dutch angles? Ooouh, so strange, I’m suddenly feeling a sense of dread and unease. Sickly green, blue, grey, colour grading? Something haunted must be afoot. Jump scares as a constant? A sickening score? Eye motifs? Themes of suicide, mental illness, a “smile” that masks something terrible? Aaaaah. It’s all so original. 


But director Parker Finn’s feature-debut isn’t trying to be original. Or at least, I bloody hope it isn’t, because everything in this film, from the promotional material to the title down to the very concept imparts a familiarity that edges on trite. In its constant relying on well-worn tropes and structural inspiration (as noted by every other reviewer) in films like The Ring and It Follows, Smile lets us know that we’re not going to see anything new.

But all that shouldn’t take away from the fact that it’s terrifically well done. The film is scary. The jump scares are terrifying. The shock-horror scenes are both haunting and gruesome, comparable to those in Ari Aster’s blockbusters. But unlike, say, that scene in Midsommar, the moments of visual gore in Smile seem to actually propel the narrative, not just permanently disturb the viewer.

Heading into the cinema, I hadn’t seen the trailer (don’t), and I’d been given the most basic, single-sentence description of the plot: something possesses people’s bodies, and makes them smile a creepy smile. By the time the first death went down, I could pretty much envision how the whole thing was going to play out. 


But Smile is full of surprises. The race-against-time-to-solve-the-mystery plot line keeps the film engaging enough to ignore the many glaring plot holes. The horror of the uncanny-valley smile and the fear of the faceless, unknown entity is sustained throughout the film, only ruined by the “reveal” in the final scene, where it all, inevitably, got incredibly goofy. But that’s horror for you. 

The haunting, beautiful and anxiety-inducing score by Cristobal Tapia de Veer is perfect, cultivating an unignorable sense of dread that isn’t eased until well after you exit the cinema. This film left me too unsettled to sleep alone, suspicious of all the ladies in the restroom on my way out, and plagued by jump scares of my shadow. 

I should note, I doubt the film would be nearly as frightening if viewed anywhere other than on the big screen.

There are some incredibly silly moments. In one, the protagonist’s fiance tells her she could have inherited mental illness, and she’s like “how do you know that”, and he’s like, “you can inherit mental illness from a parent, I researched it. The notion that the film wants us to believe this adult man was Googling basic general knowledge about mental illness is more shocking than the revelation that he went behind her back, and the absurdity of it all had me laughing out loud. On that point, for a film whose premise is mental illness and trauma, its “exploration” of the subject is nonexistent, relying heavily on stigmatising language like “nutcase” without doing much work at all. 

I wasn’t expecting to be impressed. It’s naive to expect “original” horror to be coming out in 2022. But when a film has me scared to look in the mirror, I consider that a job well done. Worth it!!!!!!!

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