If you put every modern-era horror movie that has been popular over the last decade or so into a blender and threw it up on the big screen, it would be Smile. It’s insistence on its themes of trauma and mental illness almost makes it feels like a Scream-esque parody of 2010s-era horror movies like Hereditary, The Babadook, It Follows and even the Halloween reboot. But unlike Scream, which was aware of its place as a horror-comedy slasher in the 1990s and used that to its advantage, Smile does absolutely nothing to differentiate itself from the tropes and genre conventions it leans into. It is just a very very dumb horror movie that thinks it has a lot more to say than it does.
Before getting into it, it is important to note the distinction between following the familiar storytelling conventions of the genre and straight-up ripping off sequences and plot points from other horror movies. In most horror movies, there is typically an antagonist with some vague or overt supernatural abilities that wants to kill a group of protagonists in violent and scary ways. That is a convention of the genre. If a movie does this, it is not automatically a rip-off of Halloween. A good recent example of this is X, which while it is clearly influenced by movies from that era, it doesn’t just rip them off full-sale. The same can absolutely not be said about Smile.
While not being on the same level as something like Truth or Dare, Ouija or The Bye Bye Man, Smile is one of the most predictable and least creative horror movies I have ever seen. It rips off so many popular horror movies in terms of visuals, story, and its themes that it will be impossible for me to list them all here because there is not an original bone in this movie’s body. Seriously, if you have ever seen a horror movie before, you have seen Smile, no exaggeration. You will be able to predict every single plot-point, scare and even lines of dialogue before it happens because of how cookie-cutter and formulaic the shot framing, music-buildup, camera movement and writing is in this movie.
The story of Smile is that there is some demon or entity that feeds on trauma and uses it to travel from person to person, each one dying after a week and passing it on to whoever sees it happen. Oh, and the demon or whatever it is smiles at you. And just from that brief plot description, you can picture exactly every single frame of this movie.
It’s the classic ticking-clock plot device that says, “you have a certain amount of time to figure this out or you die,” which has been thoroughly explored in movies like The Ring and Drag Me to Hell, and the main character kills a cat just like in the latter (spoilers for Drag Me to Hell, an actually creative and unique movie.)
The build-up of every scary scene is the exact same thing that has been scene in horror movies since The Conjuring: silence for a moment, character looks around in the dark scared and confused, and just when the character thinks everything is okay, the demon pops out from the extremely obvious amount of negative space and goes “boo,” scene over.
The demon moves from person-to-person one at a time, and the person being affected by the curse is the only one who can see the demon, just like It Follows. There is even a shot that looks identical to a shot in It Follows, where there is someone starring at the main character from outside a window from a distance. The demon takes the form of people doing a silly looking smile, like Truth or Dare. Trust me, that is not a movie that you want to be lifting horror scenes from.
The themes of depression and cycles of trauma that it attempts to have at its core are lifted straight out of The Babadook and Hereditary. At the beginning of the final confrontation, the smile-demon takes the form of the person who the protagonist feels guilt over causing their death, like what happens in the end of The Babadook.
Smile is a cowardly movie that is too afraid of breaking the traditional horror movie mold to do anything for its nearly two-hour runtime. A lot of this movie’s setup and stakes is taken straight out of The Ring, but unlike that movie, which gets its mystery started right away in the first act, the protagonist in Smile doesn’t start solving the mystery of the curse until probably around the hour-mark, making the movie feels like it’s just spinning its wheels in the mud. Smile relies solely on predictable, consequence-free jump-scares that do nothing to drive the story forward or push the boundaries of the genre.
Anytime the movie presents something that could take the movie in a new and possibly even exciting and creative direction if the idea was followed through on to its logical conclusion, the scene ends up being a dream. This happens every… single… time. There was a scene in the trailer that I was genuinely interested to see in the movie because it looked like an exciting and fun horror movie scene. I was heartbroken when the movie copped out and I realized that it was a dream. There is one other scene in the movie when it was happening, I perked up for a moment because I thought, “Oh wow, is this movie finally going in an unpredictable direction? What’s going to happen next?” Then the moment before I realized what was happening, poof, the main character woke up in her car and the last five minutes were a complete and utter waste of time that meant nothing.
I’ve been pretty harsh on this movie, so before I go, I’ll list off a few positives. The score by Cristobal Tapia de Veer is actually pretty good. It’s probably the one thing I can point to in the movie as being somewhat inspired and creative. The music has a very experimental and off-kilter tone to it that I could see being very effective, so it’s a shame that it is not in a better horror movie. The star, Sosie Bacon, does her best with poor material and doesn’t give a terrible performance, but she’s the only actor who seems appropriate for her role in the movie. It’s not the most incompetent movie ever made, it’s certainly a cut above something like The Bye Bye Man, but I guess when ripping off every successful horror movie ever made there’s bound to be at least a few decently put-together sequences. If you find people smiling creepily to be really compelling and scary this movie might be for you, but for me, Smile is overall a completely forgettable and dull experience that is not challenging or scary in the slightest.