Director Says “Smile” a Horror Film That Feels Like a Panic Attack
Some horror movies aim to subtly spook audiences. Others try to make viewers squirm in their seats. But filmmaker Parker Finn had a far more ambitious goal in mind when he set out to write and direct his debut feature, Smile. “I wanted to make a movie that felt like a sustained panic attack from start to finish,” he says.
The chilling story of a clinical psychiatrist who begins experiencing terrifying and inexplicable occurrences following a bizarre encounter with a patient, Smile was inspired by a short film Finn made in 2020. Titled Laura Hasn’t Slept, the short starred Caitlin Stasey — who also has a memorable role in Smile — and won a Special Jury Award in SXSW®’s Midnight Short category. The 11-minute film generated intense industry buzz around Finn, who successfully pitched a feature version to Paramount Pictures and producers Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey’s Temple Hill Entertainment.
Although drawing thematic inspiration from Laura Hasn’t Slept, Smile takes the story in a frightening new direction. Finn says he wanted to explore what it would be like to experience your mind turning against you in horrifying ways. “You know that sense of dread you feel when you wake up from a bad dream? That feeling of panicky doom that lingers with you afterwards, even though you know it wasn’t real? I wanted Smile to capture that feeling on screen.”
A lifelong fan of horror, Finn believes one of the prerequisites of the genre is characters worth caring about. “The scariest movies are the ones that work first as dramatic stories, so my goal was to create a great lead character — because if you’re invested in her, you’ll be invested in her plight,” he explains. “Then you can start layering in shocking moments that strike at the core of what the audience is afraid of and find ways to pull the rug out from under them and subvert their expectations in terrifying ways.”
Smile centers on Dr. Rose Cotter, a dedicated psychiatrist at a public hospital whose mission is to ensure her troubled patients get the help they need. But when a malevolent evil enters Rose’s life, the tables turn and she finds herself struggling to convince her friends and family that the surreal nightmare she’s experiencing is real. As her fight for sanity and survival becomes increasingly desperate, she’s forced to investigate the bizarre mystery and piece together clues to figure out what’s happening to her.
Reflecting on his journey from short filmmaker to feature writer-director, Finn says he can’t wait to terrify legions of moviegoers around the world. “Nothing can prepare you for what happens in Smile,” he says with a mischievous grin. “It’s going to shock you, it’s going to scare you, and you’ll want to cover your eyes. It’s got big, frightening moments that will cause you to jump out of your seat, but it also leans in to this creeping sense of unease that slowly burrows its way beneath your skin. Basically, it’s a roller coaster that you’re going to want to talk about with your friends as soon as it’s over.”
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