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THE GRIN REAPER
Director: Parker Finn
Screenplay: Parker Finn
Starring: Sosie Bacon, Kyle Gallner, Jessie T. Usher
Review: RJ Bland
Although people often smile when they are happy, there are a whole host of other reasons as to why we do it on a daily basis. Sometimes we smile for social reasons (come on, we've all got a fake smile), sometimes we do so because we are told an amusing joke and occasionally we do it out of resignation or embarrassment. The bottom line; a smile isn't always a 'positive' thing. In fact, sometimes, it can be downright creepy. You only have to think of Jack Torrance in The Shining (1980) or the final scene of Psycho (1960) or Regan in The Exorcist (1973) for evidence of that. Even the Jack-o'-lantern, one of the defining symbols of the spooky season, usually has a big jagged grin carved into it. Parker Finn's feature debut, aptly called Smile, promises to tap into the deep sense of uncanny of the maniacal smile.
Rose (Sosie Bacon) is something of a workaholic, pulling in far too many late shifts at the local hospital, where she works as a mental health therapist on the psychiatric ward. Even though she's exhausted, she seems to have it all; a job she loves, a dashing fiance (Jessie T. Usher) and a big fancy house. But an early dream sequence informs us that she's got some repressed childhood trauma, something that she thinks can be held at bay if she puts all of her energy into her job (hey who ISN'T doing that?!). However, things at work take a bit of a turn for the worse when she meets a new patient, Laura, who is brought in after witnessing her college professor gruesomely commit suicide in front of her. But Rose realises this isn't any regular PTSD case when Laura frantically tells her that she is being pursued by an entity that no one else can see. One that causes her to have horrible visions. It can look like someone she knows or a total stranger but whatever form it takes, it is always smiling. Shockingly, Laura commits suicide in front of Rose in her office, a big smile on her face as she takes her own life. Rose takes a few days off to mentally recover but it's not long before she is having nightmarish visions herself. Is she hallucinating? Or was Laura telling the truth and is something now coming for Rose?...
At times, Smile feels like a cocktail of other genre movies that most of us all know and love. It Follows (2014), The Ring (2002), Drag Me To Hell (2009) being the main three perhaps. However, it's at least a rather potent cocktail offering up some top notch scares and a palpable sense of dread for much of its nearly two hour running time. Is it a little derivative? Sure. But it's got enough going for it to carve out its own identity and sense of mythology. Smile is going to be a bit of a crowd pleaser and will undoubtedly spawn some sequels.
At 110 minutes, it is a little longer than you'd expect this type of film to be. Whilst some of the procedural stuff in the middle does stretch things a little, it generally zips along at a brisk pace and rarely feels dull. That's partly because of Parker Finn's script, which is always engaging whilst never feeling the need to hold our hand too much. It's also because he crams in a whole host of jump scares to keep us on our toes. More impressively perhaps are those scenes where the tension is drawn out carefully and the sense of the uncanny comes into play. Finn manages to conjure up some truly unsettling imagery too - there's one scene in particular where Rose is in her huge dimly lit kitchen that's really chilling. This film could exist in the Conjureverse but that isn't meant as an accusation of mimicry, more a hallmark of quality. For a feature debut it's a very accomplished piece of film-making. The melancholic cinematography by Charlie Sarnoff (Relic) is worth highlighting too, with the menacing interior shots feeling as if they've been lifted out of The Night House (2021) or something.
Sosie Bacon's performance as our tormented lead makes us care about all of this horror though. Rather than just watching it unfolding in a detached way, her portrayal makes everything that little bit more affecting and unnerving. If we weren't emotionally invested, Smile wouldn't be half as effective. There is a sense of dark comedy and the absurd at times but Bacon's performance means that it never becomes silly. She's quite excellent. Kyle Gallner provides some solid support and Caitlin Stasey (star of the short that inspired the film) deserves a special mention for her impressively intense turn as the doomed patient that sets everything into motion.
For those who want to look underneath the hood a little, the film makes a half decent attempt to examine past trauma and explores the insidious effect it can have on us and those around us. Like Hereditary, it posits the notion of psychological horror being passed down the generations. In the last act, these themes are fleshed out even more, culminating in a rather intense and amplified climax, which thankfully doesn't disappoint.
Smile brushes aside accusations of being simply another rehash by providing an abundance of jumps and scares and a formidable central performance by Sosie Bacon. Expect sequels!
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