The smile of a psychiatric patient’s corpse peers through a partially unzipped body bag, menacing and unforgiving. In Parker Finn’s debut supernatural thriller Smile, the titular image has attracted masses, grossing over $150 million on only a $17 million budget. Finn warns all that once you see a smile, it’s too late.
In the film, a demon feeds on the trauma of individuals who have witnessed a suicide. The demon possesses victims with malicious hallucinations, toying with their psyche to the point of inducing mania and compelling them to commit suicide in front of someone else. Trauma is passed on through these linkages, allowing the demon to prey upon its next victim. In this supernatural chain of traumatic violence begetting traumatic violence, the trademark of the demon is a smile: the horrifically deluded appearance of happiness becomes a contagion among victims.
The thriller begins when psychiatric ward doctor Rose (Sosie Bacon) is assigned to assist shell-shocked patient Laura (Caitlin Stasey), who has been driven to insanity by the demon. Laura ultimately commits suicide in front of Rose, though little does Rose know the demon has now latched onto her. Rose reckons with debilitating hallucinations of the demon, and though she is too prideful to admit it, they ultimately sever her relationships with those she loves the most.
Like the demon possessing our protagonist, cinematographer Charlie Sarroff captivates the audience with his work. Sarroff’s cinematography enables audience members to examine Rose’s tenuous, unreliable perspective from a first-person view. Sarroff’s over-the-shoulder shots of Rose imbue her actions with false optimism and serve as an ingenious way to allow audience members to authentically experience Rose’s horrific hallucinations. In this way, Sarroff’s cinematography strikingly resonates with the recurring image of a smile throughout the film: both are distortions of reality that delude audience members about Rose’s mental state.
Though Smile presents itself as a social commentary on mental health, trauma, and the stigma surrounding both, it neither ends happily nor proposes a clear path to healing. Smile is not your Halloween classic, lacking the hallmarks of excessive gore or eerie soundtrack, but its commentary and clever cinematography merits rewatches even beyond the spooky season. But this is a film that will keep you up at night. It remains clear that there is a danger to the falsity of a smile.