It sometimes feels as if horror is at a crossroads, as certain fans seem determined to further split the genre into arbitrary categories. As arthouse horror movies like “The Witch” and “Hereditary” have gained popularity in recent years, fans and directors alike have tried to create new discussion terms to differentiate intellectual, metaphor-driven horror films from their allegedly lowbrow counterparts. The phrase “elevated horror” might draw some eye rolling from serious fans (John Carpenter, for one, could not care less about the term), but in certain circles it has become a category in and of itself.
Ask an elevated horror devotee about their preferred metaphor, and you’ll often get the same response: trauma. Who could forget the viral montage of Jamie Lee Curtis telling everyone who would listen that “Halloween Ends” was actually about traumatic experiences? It’s not an incorrect analysis, but it’s not uncommon to hear horror lovers express a desire to see movies take themselves less seriously again.
Enter: “Smile.” When it arrived in theaters at end of of September, Parker Finn’s feature directorial debut delighted audiences and critics alike, topping the box office for two straight weekend, making over $210 million in the process (against a $17 million budget). Many praised the fact that the film was unapologetically goofy, gory, and not afraid to thrill audiences with time-tested genre tropes. It seemed like proof that there was still a a market for horror movies that feel like horror movies.
There’s just one problem with that theory: “Smile” is actually about trauma.
The film follows a doctor at a mental hospital (Sosie Bacon) who watches a patient commit suicide and soon finds herself haunted by an invisible being who occupies the bodies of people around her. It keeps turning up in unexpected places, identifying itself with the creepiest smile you’ve ever seen. Everyone who sees it eventually kills themselves in a brutal way and passes the curse onto whoever saw them. Without spoiling anything, characters realize that the key to safety might be found by digging back into their traumatic childhood experiences.
In a new interview with IndieWire, Finn opened up about the success he found by splitting the difference between high and lowbrow horror. The way he sees it, metaphors are great — but they’re only half the battle.
“I love horror as metaphor,” Finn told IndieWire. “But I think as a viewer, I get frustrated when it only goes as far as the metaphor and doesn’t commit to actually becoming something that is designed to scare the crap out of you.”
One of Finn’s favorite methods of doing that also happens to be by way of another one of horror’s most polarizing tropes: the jump scare. Many have dismissed jump scares as a lazy way of startling audiences without actually scaring them, and consider the lack of them in elevated horror films to be one of the subgenre’s selling points. But Finn still loves when a bad guy jumps out of a bush when you least expect it. To him, it’s just another way to create the viscerally scary experiences that separate horror from other genres.
“Some people will never love a jump scare, but I love a good jump scare,” he said. “I wanted to infuse the film with jump scares that felt earned and were designed in a way that would keep an audience on their toes, sort of ramping up and changing how it’s scaring you.”
As Finn moves forward in his horror directing career (he’s starting to kick around sequel ideas, but hasn’t settled on anything that would top “Smile”), he hopes to keep existing in that middle ground between character-centric drama and the stuff that makes audiences scream.
“I wanted to make a film that was really craft-focused, that was creating an experience that was quite unique, that was also a character-driven story exploring the human condition,” he said. “But was also going to make an audience jump out of their seat and scream a lot.”
“Smile” is available for purchase on Digital HD and is now streaming on Paramount+.