In ‘Smile,’ Why the Grins Are So Grim
Parker Finn, the director of the new horror film where characters smile before death, said the secret to making a smile creepy was in the eyes.
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By Erik Piepenburg
Smiles lit up a corner of the Bronx recently after the Yankees beat the Red Sox in a gripping 5-4 home win. During the game last month, one guy in the stands behind home plate looked so thrilled he stood up with an extra-wide grin on his face, a countenance that was caught on camera and shared widely on social media.
But this was no Yankees fan: This beaming weirdo was part of a promotional activation for the intensely creepy new horror film “Smile.” Now in theaters, it stars Sosie Bacon as a therapist who encounters an evil force that feeds on trauma around suicide and manifests in humans as a ghastly leer that grimly moves from body to body, à la “It Follows.”
Jeannette Catsoulis, in her review for The New York Times, called it a “precision-tooled picture” with smiles that act as “bleeding wounds that can’t be stanched.” It had a strong opening in North American theaters, taking in about $22 million this past weekend.
Parker Finn, who directed “Smile,” said in a recent video interview that he became fascinated by sinister smiles, but it was not so much because of how chilling they look. Horror movies have been doing that forever: Wait for the end credits of Ti West’s new film “Pearl” and you’ll see Mia Goth hold a maniacal grin for a painfully long time.
What makes a smile scary enough to build a film around, Finn said, is what it hides.
“We walk around with traumas, and to not let anyone in, we will wear a smile as a mask,” he said. “I wanted the smile to be a mask to hide evil’s true intentions.”
Finn, 35, grew up in Akron, Ohio, the son of a cinephile father who encouraged the wandering of video store aisles in search of oddball VHS box art. Finn said that in making “Smile,” his feature film debut, he had been drawn to horror films about an “urban legend you’ve inherently always known, that always arrives fully formed in front of you” — like the devil-made-me-do-it contagions in the Japanese films “Ringu” and “Cure.”
He also looked to films that blend melodrama and terror, like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Safe.”
“I was interested in exploring what it might feel like to have your mind turn against you, and what it might be like to feel like you’ve been pursued by an unknowable evil you can’t define and can’t escape,” he said.
There was no smile-making consultant on “Smile,” but Finn said he acted as one of sorts when he asked his cast — not digital effects folks — to scary up their own smiles. In rehearsals, actors stood a few feet apart from each other, taking turns contorting their lips, intensifying their stares and giving feedback until they landed on the creepiest smile their faces could render. “I’m sure we looked ridiculous,” Finn said.
The formula that worked best was an uncomfortably wide and teeth-baring smile that’s held so long it feels inhumanly frozen. The real trick was in the eyes, Finn said, specifically a “dead gaze that’s a total mismatch for the smile,” with no blinking — “a human face that pushes you into the uncanny.”
Science backs him up. Nathaniel E. Helwig, an associate professor of psychology and statistics at the University of Minnesota, said in an email that the kind of smile Finn describes “defies our expectations of what a smile should be, which adds a bit of shock value.” He added that depending on physical aspects — mouth shape, eye warmth, spatiotemporal dynamics, body language — a smile may be perceived as sinister by some people and not so by others.
In a study conducted at the Minnesota State Fair in 2017, Helwig and fellow researchers found that respondents had positive reactions to smiles with a medium width and with fewer teeth showing; smiles with extreme widths and angles were rated lowest, and open-mouthed smiles signaled fear or contempt.
No wonder horror loves smiles. In “The Man Who Laughs” (1928), Conrad Veidt’s nobleman character was condemned to laugh forever with a rictus grin, in which facial muscles contract into a grimace. In “The Shining” (1980), Jack Nicholson greets Shelley Duvall through the door with a grin, an ax and a “Here’s Johnny.” And Betty Gabriel’s desperate, tearful smile, directed at Daniel Kaluuya, signals an ominous turning point in “Get Out” (2017).
Of course, there are the smiles on faces that inherently hold the promise of friendliness — on clowns like The Joker, dolls like Chucky and ventriloquist dummies like the one that gives Anthony Hopkins hell in “Magic” (1978).
The director Jeff Wadlow said the villainous smirks in his horror film “Truth or Dare” (2018), a supernatural thriller about a killer version of the party game, were inspired by popular Snapchat filters that gave users’ exaggerated facial features, like cartoonishly enlarged eyes and grins.
Such effects “mess with your brain’s ability to understand what’s going on with the person you’re looking at,” said Wadlow, whose new film, “The Curse of Bridge Hollow,” begins streaming on Oct. 14 on Netflix. “It’s no different than if someone was weeping but they were also saying that they love you. It doesn’t add up.”
When assessing a smile, there are psychological considerations: Do you know the smiling person? Have you seen the person smile before? What mood are you in? What mood do they seem to be in?
Lisa Feldman Barrett, the author of “How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain,” said in an email that in movies, context matters.
“The facial muscle movements themselves have no inherent psychological meaning,” said Barrett, a psychologist and neuroscientist who has written for The New York Times. “The movements that create a smile are made meaningful within an ensemble of other signals.”
In a movie, she said, those signals might come from music, the events that came before in the story line, other characters’ behaviors and “the uncertainty about what is going to happen next.”
If Finn is considering a “Smile” sequel that traffics in such inherent contradictions, it sounds like he might already have an idea, and it starts with a snapshot.
“If you ever stop and watch a group of people take a photo, what’s interesting is how they put on a big smile and the smile drops away” once the photo is taken, he said. “It’s such a weird thing that humans do.”
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