If you’ve ever had this word addressed to you as an instruction, followed up with “… it may never happen!” you already know how grotesquely unnatural smiling is if you don’t feel like it. It’s much more difficult than pouting when you’re happy, a skull-grimace of misery, betraying the heartbreak within. Incidentally, I lost a bet with myself as to which Nat King Cole song would be ironically played over this film’s closing credits.
Smile is a queasy, nasty horror-melodrama from first time feature director Parker Finn. Like David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 film It Follows, this takes an indirect inspiration from the MR James short story Casting the Runes, all about an unending DNA-replication of evil. It’s shot in a dull, blank, subdued light into which hallucinations and supernatural incursions can insinuate themselves without warning, together with unsubtly brutal but effective jump scares.
Sosie Bacon (daughter of Kevin) plays Dr Rose Cotter, a consultant psychiatrist who has chosen to work in the most challenging environment possible: a hospital ER in which patients are invariably at their most violent and troubled. This is Rose’s vocation, stemming from a trauma in her own childhood, which she has effectively suppressed with elaborate professional calm. She is now engaged to a handsome young guy called Trevor (Jessie T Usher), having somewhat heartlessly broken off a relationship with Joel (Kyle Gallner), a cop who through a strange quirk of fate is called to attend when Rose faces the most terrifying case of her life. A deeply disturbed young woman is brought in, wretched with fear and lack of sleep, telling Rose about a hideously smiling demon that stalks her, inhabiting the bodies of various people: some are friends, some are random strangers. And then with a grisly self-destructive flourish, the awful smile itself breaks cover, and Rose realises that it is coming to get her too, and she faces a terrible choice if she wants to escape its curse.
Smile is a movie whose influences are certainly detectable: we are, admittedly, close to Scary Movie territory, when we get closeups of the home-security-system keypad on the wall of Rose’s luxurious home, or scenes with her adorable pet, or horrible situations which turn out to be dreams from which the heroine awakens with an explosive gasp. But there is also something arresting about the central, nauseous motif. You see someone taking their own life and are from then on pursued by this grotesque, horrible smile. People who have witnessed something so intimately despairing and horrible have become somehow implicated without their consent in the most violent dysfunction and may indeed spend the rest of their lives toughing it out, smiling through their repressed pain. Yet this buried agony may well manifest itself in carrying on the chain letter of evil: being violent or self-harming with someone else.
The movie is a shard of comic and cosmic spite, and the image of the malign smile carries force. Apart from MR James, I found myself thinking of the Kafkaesque short story that Billy Wilder wrote while working as a journalist in Berlin in the 1920s called Wanted: Perfect Optimist, about a man who gets a job in which all he has to do is sit in the office and smile continuously for eight hours a day; it soon becomes an existential ordeal of horror. As for this film, I found myself sheepishly grinning for some time afterwards.
• Smile is released on 28 September in the UK, 29 September in Australia and 30 September in the US.
• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org