This article contains spoilers for Smile.
Every year brings us at least one horror sleeper hit that no one saw coming, and in 2022 Smile is probably the top contender for that title. Released on Sept. 30, the debut horror feature from writer/director Parker Finn has earned an astounding $216 million worldwide as of press time, whic his against a budget of just $17 million. This means Paramount Pictures execs have been grinning ear-to-ear about this movie ever since its arrival (the movie is now available to stream on Paramount+ and to purchase on digital, with a physical Blu-ray, Ultra HD, and DVD release coming on Dec. 13).
Finn himself is amazed at the response to the film, telling Den of Geek, “There was certainly no way to anticipate any of this on my end. I set out to make the best film that I could, the one that I really wanted to see. Seeing audiences connect with it and embrace it the way they have has been just an incredibly surreal experience. It’s such hard work making a film, and it really makes it all worth it.”
Expanding on Finn’s 2020 short film “Laura Hasn’t Slept,” which is included with the digital and physical home releases, Smile follows psychiatrist Rose Cotter (a fantastic Sosie Bacon) as she grapples with the horrifying death of a patient named Laura (Caitlin Stasey, reprising her role from the short). The latter, who claims she is being stalked by a malevolent force that takes the form of smiling people, goes on to commit suicide in front of Rose, grinning now herself as she cuts her throat. Before long, Rose is also being tormented by inexplicable, terrifying occurrences that push her to the brink of madness.
Finn says that even going back to the original short film, he wanted to explore a situation in which the audience is not sure whether the terror is all in the protagonist’s mind or thrust upon her by external forces. “What I was chasing was whether I could take a circumstance that felt like it could, on one hand, be really deeply internal and psychological, but on the other hand, maybe there is something external and potentially supernatural happening,” he says.
Even though Rose herself is deeply traumatized—as a child, she found her mother overdosing on drugs—the menace in Smile is indeed supernatural in nature. It’s an entity that feeds off psychological trauma, which is why it besieges its victims with horrifying manifestations and hallucinations. When the victim can no longer stand it and takes their own life, they are manipulated to do it in front of someone, traumatizing that person and passing the entity’s curse on to them.
Aside from the basic premise of what the entity does and how it operates, Finn says he deliberately left any other information about the thing intentionally vague.
“There are a lot of stones that are purposely left unturned in the film,” the director explains. “I always find myself way more afraid of the unknown than something that’s easily defined or put into a box. I also think that thematically, it matched what it’s potentially like to have this feeling that your mind is turning against you, that you’re losing agency, because something is coming after you even though you can’t quite describe what it is to other people. That felt right to me.”
Finn admits that there may be a fuller backstory for the entity lurking inside his own imagination, but thinks the slippery nature of it makes it more terrifying.
“Certainly, I’ve got theories and ideas behind this thing,” he says. “But what I really love is its elusive nature… Rose almost feels like she’s the butt of a giant, really mean-spirited cosmic joke.” He adds, “That felt relatable and frightening, versus somebody conjuring some spell out of a book from the 1400s or something like that.”
The best horror, of course, is character-driven, and what makes Smile one of the smarter entries in the current generation of genre films is how Rose’s own story and that of the evil she’s confronting dovetail so smoothly. But what’s even more striking about the movie, especially since it’s a mainstream release from a major studio, is that Rose does not succeed in her own efforts to vanquish the entity.
Returning to her long-abandoned childhood home, Rose comes to terms with her memories of her mother’s death, hoping that conquering her own trauma will weaken the creature enough so that she can destroy it. And for a moment, it seems to work. When the thing manifests physically as a deformed version of her mother, Rose apparently manages to set it on fire before leaving the home and driving to the apartment of her sympathetic ex, Joel (Kyle Gallner).
But Rose’s victory is short-lived. Seeing the same disturbing smile spread across Joel’s face, Rose realizes that she’s still at her family home and that her triumph and escape has all been a hallucination. This drives her over the edge and, after the evil entity takes possession of her body by literally entering her mouth, she too is smiling… She also then sets herself on fire, with the real Joel arriving just in time to see this and have the curse passed on to him.
While there has been some criticism online that the movie allows Rose to give into despair and trauma, Parker Finn is adamant about the choices he makes with the story and its handling of mental illness and depression. He also acknowledges that Smile is part of a genre that doesn’t always traffic in happy endings.
“I think that in exploring these themes and motifs, I wanted them to always be coming from a place of empathy, and that’s being tied to Rose’s subjective view in a real way,” he says patiently. “Even throughout the film, when you hear flippant or glib comments, you’re meant to feel them and experience them the way that Rose does. It’s holding a mirror up to where we’re at as a society, and a commentary about how we react and respond to people who are struggling, more than anything about what they’re struggling with.”
While Rose does get to experience an emotional catharsis—at least for a few fleeting moments—Finn adds that this is an “R-rated horror film for adults” and that the film ends accordingly. “Sometimes there are these evil forces of nature out there in the world,” he says. “This idea that something supernatural like this curse could creep back up and persist felt like the worst logical conclusion, [and] the most interesting place to take it as a piece of cinema.”
With more than $200 million banked since its September release, it almost seems inevitable that the supernatural presence in Smile could very well persist if Paramount has its way. If the studio does come calling for a sequel, Finn says he’s ready.
“There are a lot of exciting things that could be done with Smile, and like I said, there are elements of the film that I left purposely unexplored,” he confirms. “[But] the last thing I ever want to do is just directly repeat myself or retread ground that I’ve already gone over. I want it to feel very unexpected and exciting and fresh in a way that might catch audiences off guard, and make sure that the film has a brand-new bag of tricks up its sleeve.”
Smile is available to stream on Paramount+ and to purchase on digital, and will arrive on Blu-ray, Ultra HD, and DVD on Dec. 13.