There’s no doubt Paramount has been smiling about Smile. In a year that has had a lot of successes for the studio, including Scream, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, and the monster blockbuster Top Gun: Maverick, Smile – focusing on psychiatrist Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) witnessing her bizarrely grinning patient (Caitlin Stasey) committing suicide and then realizing she is part of a curse that will cause her to take own life within the week – has been another standout. This would be true for any movie that cost less than $20 million to make and has now brought in over $200 million worldwide and counting, but it’s especially notable given Smile was originally produced with the intent of being released straight to streaming on Paramount+.
Instead, the highly positive reaction it got at a test screening led the studio to reconsider their approach, and to release Smile in theaters, where it became a huge hit – and one with unusually strong legs for a horror film. In fact, Smile has held up so well that even as it arrived on both Digital and Paramount+ this past week – a 4K Ultra HD release, along with Blu-ray and DVD, is coming in December – it was still in the top five at the US box office.
Fandom spoke to Smile writer/director Parker Finn about the film’s unusual road to box office success, his decision to hold back from revealing too many specifics on the backstory of the curse at the center of a film, a potential sequel, and more, including diving into spoilers about the film’s ending (don’t worry, we’ll warn you when that section is coming).
THE TEST SCREENING
THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING
The last couple of years have seen a number of films produced with the intention of a theatrical release instead either bypassing theaters completely or getting a simultaneous theater and streaming release, which is what makes Smile so rare, given Parker Finn had been told from the start his movie – based on his own 2020 short, Laura Hasn’t Slept – was being made for streaming.
Reflecting on what it’s felt like to not only have Smile instead released in theaters first, but then become such a hit in the process, Finn told Fandom, “It’s been nothing short of incredible and kind of surreal, if I’m being honest. I was just absolutely grateful for the opportunity to even have gotten to make the movie. For Paramount to have believed in me and the vision enough to allow me as a first time filmmaker to get to make something was amazing.”
When it came to the decision to put Smile in theaters, Finn recalled, “After that first test screening happened, when the studio started looking at the film through sort of a different lens, the response we got from those early audiences was incredibly exciting. When they brought us in and told us that they wanted to go wide release theatrical and put a full marketing campaign behind it, it’s one of those pinch me moments. The reason I wanted to make movies was because of the theatrical experience, and seeing the way that audiences seem to have connected [with] and embraced the film is just the most satisfying part of the whole process for me.”
A LASTING SMILE
Of course, the question then becomes why did Smile become so very successful? What was it about this film in particular – even in a year where horror has been doing great in general – that allowed it to hold on in the way it has at the box office?
Said Finn, “It’s hard for me to engage with what people seem to be connecting with the movie so much. At least anecdotally, what I’ve heard is that the movie is scaring people and it seems to be having a real effect and that they seem to be telling everyone else around them. Certainly word of mouth, I think, has helped it grow the legs it has at the theater. But for me, as a fan of horror films, I can’t be scared or connect with a horror film unless I’m really deeply invested in the main character. And I think that people are really connecting with the character of Rose and her journey. And I think that with the very sort of hard hitting horror in the film, that combination seems to be really effective on audiences.”
As theaters have looked to bring people back in after Covid-19 upended the business in 2020, horror has once again proven to be a dependable genre, leading to many recent successes, particularly when it comes to films at a lower budget, which often struggle to find an audience these days. Said Finn, “I think audiences have gotten incredibly savvy and horror is a place where you can still surprise them. There’s this wonderful balance of familiarity and expectations and then upending those that horror can strike that I’m really fascinated by. This film was designed to be kind of a love letter to a cursed chain kind of film, but to hopefully execute it in a way that nobody had really seen before. I think that there’s always a place for thoughtful filmmaking and that horror is a great place to sort of, collectively as a society, look at all the things that are scaring us and explore the human condition.”
KEEPING SECRETS… UNTIL PART 2?
As Smile progresses, the lead character, Rose, and her ex-boyfriend, police officer Joel (Kyle Gallner) discover that the curse she has goes back quite a ways, as they trace a disturbing pattern of people witnessing a death who then die themselves within a week. However, beyond that general information – and scattered details regarding some of these recent deaths – we don’t get any larger reveal about the cause of the curse or just how long this has been occurring for.
Finn said that he always felt Smile worked best by not having all of the backstory laid out, explaining, “There’s purposely a lot of corners of the film that I did not want to shine a light into. I think the unknown is always really, really scary. Rather than being able to point to some book that some monk read in the 1400s, or something like that, I thought that if the whole thing could feel like a really sort of nasty cosmic joke, that, to me, was really exciting and terrifying.”
Finn added, with his own smile, “Having said all that, I have a lot of thoughts and theories about sort of the elusive nature of what happened in Smile that really excite me. But I love the idea that audiences get to kind of have a conversation and debate certain things about it.”
Of course it sure seems likely Finn will get to explore some of those thoughts and theories, should he wish to, because while Paramount has yet to officially announce anything, Smile’s success all but guarantees the studio will want a sequel. When it came to pondering what a follow-up could be, Finn said, “There’s a lot of stuff, a lot of stones that were left unturned, oftentimes on purpose. Not for any sequel considerations, but just for the purposes of the story. But there’s also things that I wish I could have gotten to do in the first one that I think it’d be very exciting to get to do at some point. As exciting as the world of Smile is, I want to make sure that I’m not ever just repeating what I just did or just retreading the same ground and that if there was going to be more to do in the world of Smile that we could come at it from from a very unexpected, interesting angle and have some brand new tricks up our sleeves for the audience that maybe they don’t see coming.”
ABOUT THAT ENDING…
Note: This last section goes into MAJOR SPOILERS for the end of Smile.
As Finn mentioned, an integral element of Smile is its main character, Rose, and the fantastic performance Sosie Bacon gives as a woman who oh-so quickly finds her entire life unraveling. Ultimately, it’s a life she’s unable to save, as the movie ends on a decidedly dark note, with Rose succumbing to the curse and killing herself, passing the curse onto Joel, who is helpless to stop her.
Regarding his lead character’s grim fate, Finn said, “I knew from a very early stage that I was interested in exploring this story to its worst logical conclusion.” However, before her death, Rose (and the audience) gets clarity on the trauma she’s been sitting on most of her life, as we find out the details about her troubled mother, who a young, overwhelmed Rose allowed to overdose, without calling anyone for help.
“Deeply creepy visuals and a standout Sosie Bacon further elevate ‘Smile’s unsettling exploration of trauma, adding up to the rare feature that satisfyingly expands on a short.” – Laugh Tillyoupee on Fandom’s Horror Film Wiki
Finn remarked, of Rose’s fate, “It was really important to me that after this really sort of gut-wrenching, emotional journey that we go on, that we still get to have an emotional catharsis with Rose. I thought that the character earned that, the audience earned that, and the structure of the story earned that. But then afterwards, I think that sometimes there’s just these evil, unstoppable forces of nature out there that just have a certain sense of inevitability to them and sometimes they creep back up. It just felt like the right thing to do, which might say more about me than anything else. I went with my instincts on that.”
In its final act, Smile also goes big in a quite literal way, as Rose’s visions of her mother, fueled by the curse, goes through a metamorphosis into a giant, warped and hulking version of the woman, referred to as “Nightmare Mom” on the film’s special features. And that’s before we see a second, even more horrific version of the creature (called “Monstrosity Mom” offscreen), who literally climbs inside Rose’s pulled open mouth.
It’s a big swing for the movie to take, and Finn noted, “We talked about this a lot – that we wanted to hopefully exercise a lot of restraint as we build the movie and allow people to get really anxious and tense and creeped out by what is going on. But then at a certain point toward the very end, I knew I wanted to explode it into the full blown horror film that it becomes. I love monsters and I love practical effects. I always knew I wanted to do this thing at the very end, but I wanted people to not even be able to believe that this was happening at the end of this movie, just for sort of how wild it gets. I love that sort of hard left that the film takes.”
Smile is now available for purchase on Digital and can be seen on Paramount+ and will be available on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and DVD on December 13.
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