Every Halloween season, it’s customary for me to get suckered into at least one mediocre, mainstream horror that wouldn’t turn my head any other month of the year. This October, I was ensnared by Smile, which has been effectively guerilla-marketed at baseball games & Today Show tapings by attendees with creepy, direct-to-camera stares in a way that’s bound to catch anyone’s attention. A major studio horror from Paramount Pictures, it was the #1 movie in America its first couple weeks of release, less than a month after the similarly off-putting Barbarian led the box office its own opening weekend. The people are hungry for this kind of conventional, jump-scare driven horror right now, so Smile seems like as good as any state-of-the-union check-in on mainstream horror that I’ll likely find this year. In that Spooky Season context, it was perfectly cromulent.
When compared to the grim, grey days of 2016’s Mental Illness Metaphor horror Lights Out, Smile at least registers as a sign that the industry has improved. In terms of the two films’ depictions of mental health crises, those improvements are miniscule. Lights Out cruelly asserts that suicide is a heroic act for the mentally ill, so they will no longer burden their family. Smile softens that messaging to say the mentally ill should isolate themselves, so they don’t infect others with their mania. In this case, suicidal ideation is a curse passed from victim to victim like VHS tapes in Ringu, infecting each poor soul with a demonic presence that smiles at them so intensely they kill themselves, passing on the trauma-curse to whoever’s unfortunate enough to witness the violence. Between the grinning Depression Monster presence of The Babadook, the Snapchat filter smiles of Truth or Dare, and the chain e-mail curse distribution path of It Follows, Smile is made entirely of pre-existing building blocks borrowed from much more creative works. It’s basically a greatest hits collection of late-2010s horror tropes, the kind you’d expect to find on a Target end-cap CD rack.
The post-Hereditary trauma-monster trend forces Smile to participate in a mental illness metaphor it’s too vapid to tackle with any nuance. There are multiple scenes where uncaring therapists, boyfriends, and siblings line up to recite the dictionary definition of “trauma” to our cursed protagonist, explaining how they learned in their online research that mental illness can be . . . you guessed it, hereditary. Maybe the recent “elevated horror” trends from smaller studios like Neon & A24 have led the industry down a treacherous path, since more by-the-numbers chillers from major players like Paramount don’t pay enough attention to the meaning behind their scares to pull off these Trauma & Grief metaphors with any credibility. Still, artsy-fartsy mutations of the genre have at least helped steer the industry’s visual aesthetics into some exciting directions. We’ve finally left the greyed-out, fluorescent-lit dungeons that mainstream horror lurked in for the entirety of the aughts, emerging into lightness, humor, color, and atmospheric tension that’s been missing from the genre since at least the 1990s. Smile might not know why Ari Aster’s camera twists its establishing shots upside down, but at least it’s borrowing from something that’s more interesting to look at than Saw.
Of course, none of Smile‘s relationships to its horror contemporaries really matter in the moment. Its jump scares rattle; its trauma-monster creature design is memorably bizarre; and its constant rug pulls continually prompt you to question reality. That’s all it really needs to pull off to succeed at the one thing it’s supposed to do: entertain horror-hungry audiences its opening weekend in October. By next year, Smile will be replaced by another high-concept, low-creativity horror novelty from a major studio with a knack for attention-grabbing marketing gimmicks, forgotten to time by everyone who’s not a total nerd for this stuff. I just like thinking about what those disposable Halloween Season novelties indicate about the horror industry at large, because I happen to be one of those nerds.