It’s always a good idea to check out what’s now playing in theaters at some point during the Six Weeks of Halloween, but the last few years have proved difficult on that front. Naturally, the pandemic was not exactly conducive to movie theaters for a while, but even before Covid, there were plenty of times when it seemed theaters were lacking great horror movie options in the weeks leading up to Halloween (or, like, they’d release something on Halloween day).
But something’s in the air this year. Hot Horror Fall is upon us! We’ve already had stuff like Bodies Bodies Bodies and Pearl, not to mention the two movies we’ll be covering below (Barbarian & Smile), and even horror adjacent stuff like Don’t Worry Darling and See How They Run have been coming out. Of course, I haven’t seen all of these, and some might not be worth seeing, but options have been plentiful and I haven’t even mentioned Halloween Ends yet (though frankly, I’m not terribly excited for that given the ambivalence I’ve had for the last couple entries, not to mention general sequel fatigue.) Anyway, there have been a couple of really solid flicks that I’ve caught up with in the past couple weeks, so let’s get to them!
The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 3.5 – Now Playing: Barbarian & Smile
- Don’t Breathe (trailer)
- Sawed by the Bell (Robot Chicken)
- The People Under the Stairs (trailer)
Barbarian – Due to an Airbnb scheduling snafu, a house in a bad neighborhood in Detroit has been double-booked. A young woman arrives to find a strange man already staying there. Due to circumstances, they end up staying in the house together and attempting to mitigate the fraught situation, only to find that there’s more going on in the house than meets the eye.
I’m going to leave the plot summary there because this is a good movie to go into whilst knowing as little as possible. Rest assured, it’s a fun ride with an unconventional structure and some well balanced tonal shifts between humor and horror. While it touches on some subversive and taboo elements and is not suitable for the faint of heart, it never reaches Don’t Breathe turkey baster levels (to reference another movie that makes good use of Detroit’s decrepit environs). That doesn’t mean there aren’t shocking surprises or anything, and it is rated R for a reason, but it doesn’t go too far (but what do I know, I’m a little jaded by all this horror movie watching, ymmv). Mild spoilers will follow, but I’ll try not to stray too far into that territory.
About halfway through the movie, just as our two protagonists discover something shocking in the basement of their rental home, we smash cut to Justin Long driving along the highway in California. He’s a famous Hollywood actor that’s about to fall from grace as the result of a Me Too controversy. In a desperate attempt to scramble up capital for his defense fund, has to liquidate some of his assets… like that rental property in Detroit!
This represents a huge shift not just in the overall narrative, but in the tone of the film. This whole section is played mostly for laughs. When this character discovers the secret murder rooms in the basement, his first thought is not the inherent terror of the situation… but rather the extra square footage that he can claim whilst selling the house. Naturally, his character is somewhat less than sympathetic, and even though you sometimes have hopes that he might turn things around, this is not a movie where a bad man is rehabilitated. When he gets what’s coming to him, it’s pretty damn satisfying (in part because he demonstrates his true character a bit too often).
Writer/director Zach Cregger displays an admirable control of both pacing and tone, especially as the narrative turns from one character to another, or we take a quick but illuminating flashback, or as tone shifts wildly from horror to comedy and back again. Thematically, it shows a deft hand in critiquing the dread “toxic masculinity”… well, at least compared to most attempts at this sort of thing, which are usually more didactic, overly-literal, and ham-fisted. I mean, it’s not exactly subtle, but it’s not a lecture either.
It’s not a surprise that traditional studios all rejected this (or requested that Cregger remove all the things that make it unique), but I will say that it is remarkable that they were not only able to (eventually) make the movie they wanted, but that the marketing was restrained enough not to give away the twists and turns (and most folks have been pretty good about not spoiling it on social media too, a rarity in this day and age). I know I’m kinda spoiling it now, but I’m leaving a lot out.
It’s still in theaters now, but will likely not be lasting much longer. If you’re still reading this and haven’t seen it, it’s worth seeing in the theater (I suspect audiences will be sparse at this point, but it’s nice to not be the only person gasping in the theater). ***
- The Ring Video Dating (Robot Chicken)
- The Ring (trailer)
- It Follows (trailer)
Smile – Rose is a psychiatrist who witnesses one of her patients commit suicide right in front of her. The patient was tormented by smiling delusions. Soon, Rose starts to experience odd occurrences that are suspiciously familiar to her patient’s descriptions. Is she suffering from her own PTSD episode, or is something else at work here?
A lot of modern horror and indeed, a lot of modern pop-culture in general, is obsessed with trauma. Smile is a movie that literalizes that tendency, but then slots it into a more traditional, studio-friendly jump-scare framework. It’s a weighty theme, but the enormous glut of trauma-focused narratives we’re seeing these days makes this an also-ran, even if it does ask some interesting questions. What does society owe traumatized people? What do traumatized people owe society? You can interpret this movie as a critique of the current obsession of trauma, but you could also see it as advocating for despair in the face of a difficult issue. Either way, you’re still amplifying a common theme.
Smile clearly wears its influences on its sleeve, notably The Ring (not as much Ringu) and It Follows. Both of those earlier films also feature trains of, for lack of a better term, infection. The infection is spread through differing methods; a videotape/technology, sex, and in the case of Smile, trauma. This sort of thing makes for an effective driving premise, but often leads to an unclear resolution. It Follows, in particular, doesn’t really know what to do with the dilemma it’s set up, and Smile suffers from a similar lack of clarity in the “rules” of the curse (or whatever you want to call it). I will say that Smile, at least, devises more clever workarounds once the basic rules are established, even if it loses its footing in the endgame. It’s one of those things where you could go with a happy ending or a sad one, but at this point – both approaches are played out, so you have to really thread the needle to make an impact. There was one way I thought of that would have been a sorta “win”, but also be a bit of a downer that could have fit, but the movie didn’t go that way…
I guess a lot of the above could be interpreted as a mixed review, but this is ultimately a really good time at the movies, and it’s thought provoking stuff. It’s very well crafted and while it does lean heavily into jump-scares, it is actually quite good at that sort of thing. It’s not exactly a fresh approach, but it doesn’t feel stale either. The premise offers an element of existential dread that the rest of the movie does deliver on, and it’s visually impressive as well.
There’s a phrase that has emerged over the last several years to describe a particular brand of films called “elevated horror.” This is a somewhat annoyingly vague phrase, as what most of its proponents describe as hallmarks of “elevated horror” are not unique to the films that have garnered this label. This, of course, leads to Joe Bob Briggs’s snarky definition, which is that “elevated horror” is the term that people who hate horror movies use to describe horror movies they like. Whatever the case, there’s a bunch of movies that seem to be almost embarrassed of their horror genre trappings, as if the filmmaker is saying something to the effect of “I really wanted to make a movie about trauma, but the only way I could get a budget to make this downer of a movie was if I said that a demon was involved” (I’m looking at you, Hereditary!) Anyway, Smile might be the sort of film that earns an “elevated horror” moniker, but it’s definitely not embarrassed by its genre roots. There’s some genuinely crazy stuff in the film, and it revels in all its jump-scares and face ripping glory.
It’s certainly a bit derivative and it’s yet another film that focuses primarily on trauma, but it’s well crafted and effective stuff. ***
There you have it. I’ll probably cover the new Halloween movie in the speed round at the end of the marathon, but in the meantime, we’ve got some good stuff coming your way. I think this weekend will focus on movies with the word “Don’t” in their title (I’ll explain more on Sunday), but plenty of other things going on. If you’re still craving more reviews and horrorific fun, don’t forget Zack’s Film Thoughts, as he’s been cranking out reviews of multiple movies almost daily.
2 thoughts on “Now Playing: Barbarian & Smile”
Honestly, I’ve been surprised to see Smile get mostly positive reviews. It has one of the most unintentionally funny trailers I’ve seen in recent memory. I just don’t find smiling people scary, I guess. I wanted to check out Barbarian but it looks like it’s already gone from theaters. If it hits VOD before the 31st, I might review it. And thanks for the shout-out, as always. I’ve been trying to get them out daily but have fallen behind a little.
To be sure, the smiling part of Smile isn’t really that important and is actually kinda weird. The movie has tons of well executed jump scares that have little to do with the smiling. Which is weird, because they say how this thing is always smiling, but then it’s not smiling most of the time, and it’s a little weird that they based the title and marketing around the smiling. I think I like Barbarian more, but they’re both solid little horror movies…