'Smile' director Parker Finn reveals his horror inspirations and sequel potential

Horror is having a scary-good year, as 2022 has seen an array of killer franchise entries and original titles that both delight and fright audiences and critics. The latest is writer/director Parker Finn's theatrical debut, Smile. Both a psychological thriller and a horror film in the vein of The Ring, Smile tells the story of Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), a psychologist specializing in trauma who treats a terrified patient (Caitlin Stasey) who is convinced that she's being terrorized by a smiling demon inhabiting the people around her. After the woman commits a dire act, Cotter is shaken and then starts seeing things herself.

With Smile available on Digital on Nov. 15, SYFY WIRE got on a Zoom with Finn to dig into what scares him, the horror films that influenced this movie, and if he has an idea for any prequels or sequels.

***Spoilers below for Smile***

When you were writing Smile, were there particular horror films of importance to you that slipped into the DNA of this story?

I think we're all the product of our inspirations. With Smile, I wanted to make a love letter to the cursed chain story which is something that I've always loved and been fascinated with. But what I really wanted to do was place a character inside one of those movies that was very grounded, honest, and felt real, and was dealing with a lot of internal stuff that was initially separate from this external element that comes in.

What were some of those films?

Certainly, there were movies that I was thinking about while I was making it. I love Japanese horror. Ringu was on my mind. But a film that was really on my mind was Cure by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. I love the nightmarish atmosphere and the horror paired with an investigation. I always loved that film. I was thinking about Rosemary's Baby and how Mia Farrow's character is being gaslit and told that what she's experiencing is wrong and that she's misinterpreting things. That character experience is really interesting to me. And then a film that I was thinking about constantly while I was making it is Todd Haynes' Safe (1995). I love that movie. It's one of my favorites because of the way that it places you in that character's anxiety, and you're not sure what's real and what's in her head as she goes down this rabbit hole. I was so affected by that movie. It really inspired me about the experience of placing you in a character's subjective so strongly.

What scares you and how did you weave that into what the audience experiences in Smile?

I always look inward at what scares me. The idea of feeling like you're losing your sense of self, or that you can't trust your own perception, or you don't recognize the world around you, is really frightening to me. Not being believed, I think, is really a universal fear, especially by the people closest to you. And having the people closest to you pushing away from you, or being repulsed by you, feels really, really frightening, at least on the character front. And then this idea of this unknown thing that you can't quite describe, you can't quite define or put in a box, but you know that it's coming for you. That feeling, I think there's so much anxiety in that. I was writing this movie during the pandemic and some of that slipped in there, maybe subconsciously.

Speaking of the thing coming for you, when Rose returns to her family home, you had the choice to show the smile demon or to keep it a mystery to her and the audience. Was the reveal always in the script?

Yes, that was always in there from the beginning. It was something I knew I wanted to do. I wanted to follow the movie to one possible logical conclusion and it always felt like the most interesting direction for me. I love monsters. And I also love not shying away from a reveal. I think if you can show restraint throughout most of the film, that you can earn a reveal at the end. It's never going to work for everyone. But for me, I love that sort of thing. I knew I wanted to show what the smiler looked like behind all those masks it's wearing. It was really written into the script, the exact same way that we see it.

I also knew that as somebody that grew up and loved practical effects, it's driven by practical effects. Of course, there's also amazing VFX in the film. But the practical, tangible nature of that was really important to me. It was actually one of the very last things we shot for the film because we needed all that runway to get that done. I was so excited to get to work with studioADI and Tom Woodruff, Jr, and Alec Gillis to bring that to life.

The movie also ends on a very bleak note. Was there ever a version where Rose escaped or was it always a fait accompli for her?

That was part of the story from very, very early on, knowing that we were gonna go to the worst way it could end. How we were going to get there, of course, took several different paths and changed a little bit along the way. But I was really hoping that I might get a chance to have my cake and eat it too, where we still reach an emotional catharsis with the character that I hope feels earned. It's something that I think we desperately need after going on the journey with her. And yet, sometimes there just is evil in the world that creeps back up and wins. That felt so frightening to me that she can do everything right, and that they're just some forces of nature that are unstoppable.

Let's talk about that credits needle drop of "Lollipop." Was that the plan from early on or did it come in the edit?

I knew that I wanted to do something from that era, and that I wanted it to be like tonal whiplash. It gives the audience permission to unclench and let the breath they may have been holding, out at that moment. Obviously, it's an extremely dark ending. But hopefully, it was a way to bring people back down to earth. And lean into the vibe that, as mean and dramatic as everything is, that maybe from a certain perspective that exists in the film, she is the butt of a cosmic joke. [Laughs.]

Do you have an idea for a sequel, or a prequel, or was Smile meant to just be a self-contained story?

Smile was always designed to just exist for its own right, to be very self-contained and to tell the whole story. When I was making it, I had no idea that this many people were gonna watch it. There's a lot of fun stuff that could still be explored in the world of Smile. I definitely left a lot of stones purposefully unturned. There's also things that I wish I could have done in the first one that I didn't get the chance to so it could be really exciting to get that chance. But I always want to make sure that if I'm going to do something, that it's going to feel fresh and different from what I just did. I wouldn't want it to just feel like a repeat of Smile. I'd want it to feel really unexpected and new and different. How it might relate to the first and what kind of story could follow that up, I'd want that to be a big surprise for people.

Smile is available on Digital and is streaming on Paramount+ on Nov. 15 and on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray™ and DVD on Dec. 13

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