‘Smile’ — Horror Without Rules

by Frank Martin

Supernatural stories — especially supernatural horror — can be tricky to navigate. This is mainly because stories are often dictated by the natural world. But in a supernatural story, the writer pretty much has free reign to alter the world as they see fit. At the same time, a story may lose some of its punch if the world doesn’t have any rules. They provide structure to a story and without them, the story can become contrived, which is what happened with Smile.

The movie is essentially a ghost story as the main character is haunted throughout the film. Most ghost stories typically have rules that dictate how the ghost can operate and interact with the real world. Smile gets around this by swapping out a haunting for a curse. The mechanism of the curse is never fully revealed. It has no origins and, really, no face to associate with. It’s only in the film’s climax that we see anything resembling an actual antagonist. But the rules in which this antagonist operates and what it is capable of are never fully formed. In short: it can pretty much do anything.

This entity, whatever it is, can cause vast hallucinations and alter the reality of whomever is cursed. It can make them see things that others can’t. Sometimes it takes the shape of strangers. Sometimes it takes the shape of actual people in the room. The most consequential event in the film is when the entity seems to interact with the real world by killing a cat. How this can happen when the entity shows no sort of physical presence is never fully fleshed out. The story pretty much flies by the seat of its pants, which can be distracting. That’s not to say that Smile is a bad film. The acting, directing, cinematography — pretty much every aspect of the film is top-notch. This is all aside from its storytelling, which, without rules to constrain it, is so bloated it becomes distracting.

Smile is now streaming on Paramount+.

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