Bizarre events and wild, forced smiles are just a way of living in Sunderland, not a horror film. Parker Lane and his use of simple narrative cues to signify something amiss or wrong is rather cute. It shouldn’t be, but it is. Smile probably suffered at the hands of its social media marketing, which took what was played out as a strait-laced horror with booming sound effects to signify a moment of terror as something to be mocked. Weak little jump scares and the obvious connotations of what came before it does little for Smile, but Smile does little for the audience anyway. It is a self-eating circle where everybody loses, and therefore, everyone is a winner. Its tension in that opening crawl comes not from the unexpected but from what to anticipate in the face of such dull inevitabilities.
In a fine leading role for Sosie Bacon comes the usual run of panicked and paranoid lead characters. Dr. Rose Cotter is not the powerhouse needed for Smile and although the immediate contrast of fear and fact is drawn up, Smile can do little with it. Its bloody disgusting paranoia and the electronic distortion that plays over the top musters up little courage. Lane has little in the way of directing significance, the consistencies of basic back and forth a real snooze that fails to bring to life the horror on display. What little of it comes through is the usual notes and strokes of lazy jump scares, an unappealing-if-laughable grin etched onto the faces of doomed characters and eventually build to that dull showcase of ending a long line of misery.
Smile is a step back for the genre, a dull bit of filler that riffs on dormant ideas that had not been rushed through and chopped up in some years. Bits and pieces robbed from the latter days of Final Destination, where curses can be passed on through a moral self-betrayal. Kill-or-be-killed structures mark Smile as nothing at all new, but the familiarity should provide either new ground to explore or the comfort of similarity in a horror film that does not need to prove much. Nothing to smile about here, but that was no surprise. Kyle Gallner and Caitlin Stasey appear also, and their lack of push outside the horror genre is of no surprise. This is where they reside and where they stay, filler characters and vaguely recognisable faces to be bumped off and brutalised.
Whether they do or do not in Smile is of no relevance. Lane hopes his branch of horror, which is as lazy as it gets for a genre entering a stylish era of neon lights and clear-cut commentaries, can outweigh the sloppier details or even, at times, the lack of them entirely. Smile lacks the pacing, the energy and the keenly built horror that drops the defences of horror fans and audiences. It is a tough one to swallow, especially when Smile could have been a reflective horror feature. Even if it does not want or need to say something, there could be fun in the replication of a classic idea not quite realised for this decade. But is repeating and redrafting the same idea from twenty years ago, and being unable to make it feel fresh or tense, a victory? Not at all.