If You're Happy and You Know It...
Of all the genres of horror, monster movies have to be one of the most difficult. While horror is genre that, in general, can be difficult to nail properly (the difference between a good scare and a ho-hum moment is all about timing and execution), monster movies layer added difficulty because you have to nail the monster. You can't just put someone out in a rubber suit (or CGI) at the start of the film and expect it to be scary. A good monster movie comes down to building the suspense.
There's an adage that the best monster is one that's barely seen at all. Think about It, where the film keeps Pennywise in shadows, as a thing glimpsed only occasionally. It doesn't reveal the true horror for a good hour of the runtime because that anticipation, the need to know where the monster is, to know what it is, becomes palpable. The longer you can delay showing the monster without revealing its true form the more effective the horror can be.
With that said, the anticipation can be a double-edged sword. You can be so effective at keeping the monsters as a thing that exists more in the mind of the audience than on screen that, when the beast is finally revealed, it can't legitimately live up to the anticipation. The mind of the audience will always be a scarier place than what is revealed. If you have to show the monster you have to do it right or the ending of your film will fall a little flat. And, for me, I gotta admit that the one sour note of Smile was the monster waiting at the end. Everything up to that reveal was solid, but the monster doesn't quite bring it home.
Smile focuses on Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), a therapist at a psychiatric ward who receives a new patient, Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey). Laura is manic, freaking out because she claims there is someone following her. Not someone anyone else can see, but a creeping thing that is there, on the periphery waiting. It sometimes looks like random strangers, sometimes looks like people Laura knows (or has known), but she's frightened because the thing is always smiling. It's an evil smile, and Laura is afraid that, soon enough, it'll get her and kill her. She's been seeing this creeping stranger every since her professor killed himself in front of her with a hammer. It's been four days and she can't sleep because soon she'll die.
During the sessions Laura freaks out, claiming to see the creature in the room. Then she starts gurgling and seizing up. Rose calls for help, but when she turns back Laura is standing there, the horrible smile on her face. Then she kills herself in front of Rose, using a broken shard of a mug to slit her own throat, smiling the whole time. Her death is gruesome and it leaves Rose shaken. And then Rose sees Laura again, in her house. Just a glimpse, with that evil smile on her face, and Rose suspects that now she's next.
The smartest idea in Smile is the creature. Essentially, for most of the run time there is no creature, just various characters with a creepy smile on their face. It could be Laura, or Rose's own psychiatrist, Dr. Madeline Northcott (Robin Weigert), or anyone else. Things could be going normally and then someone turns and puts that evil smile on their face and Rose realizes she's not really there, she's not awake, she's lost in her mind, trapped with this monster for seconds or minutes at a time. It's there, always waiting, driving her slowly insane.
it works well because the monster is always hidden. It keeps you guessing, and even when the monster is "revealed" in these moments they aren't really there. It's a game, and the monster is playing Rose (as well as the audience). This builds up anticipation, always fucking with the viewers making them guess when something horrible will happen. And, best of all, it can strike in moments where you truly don't expect it. That leaves you caught flat footed so the film can play its games all over again.
With that said, your mileage with the movie will depend entirely on how scared you can get of a smile. The film doesn't really go in for jump scares, instead building slow anticipation for a creeping sense of dread. The horror comes from the times when someone transforms into the smiling beast, but its doesn't have that visceral, immediate attack that leaves your pulse pounding. This is a film all about what's going on and why but I wouldn't necessarily call that scary. Creepy, yes, but that's not the same thing.
Additionally, the movie spends a lot of time on Rose trying to figure out what's happening to her. This isn't just the mind game the monster plays, fucking with her as she tries to go about her life. No, Rose quickly learns there's a pattern, that one death links to another, and then another, and as she traces it back she starts to figure out what is really going on. This verges dangerously close to explaining the monster, but the film is at its best when it's not focusing on the why or the what. The monster is the monster, better to let it out so it can smile for us.
And then we get to the last act, which I won't spoil here. Suffice it to say simply the monster is shown, for real, and I just wasn't impressed. I don't know what I expected (hell, I don't even know if I expected anything, really) but what the film gives us doesn't really meet the high bar the rest of the creepy story had set. It's was a deflating moment for me, a sense of the inevitable mixed with a weird CGI beast, and I just wasn't in it. I think the monsters was meant to be scary, a big reveal of a monstrous beast that shakes us to our core. I just found it goofy. It didn't play.
I can see why people really liked Smile. It for sure wasn't a bad movie by any measure. But for someone, like me, who has seen a lot of horror, this film didn't quite get to a level that could truly scare me. It was interesting, creepy at times, maybe even occasionally thrilling. But as far as actually being horrifying, Smile didn't put a horrified, nervously giggling smile on my face.