Discover more from Writing Without Rules: Deep Dives
‘Smile,’ ‘It Follows,’ and the Power of Gaze
Horror movies have a secret weapon: The camera.
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I am at an age where I have experienced Late Stage Capitalism enough to be depressed about everything. For example, back in September 2022 the folks behind the horror film Smile pulled a viral promotional stunt wherein they arranged to have actors sitting and standing in view of the network TV cameras during baseball games. Instead of finding this a delightful subversion of reality, I found myself pondering the misery of folks who had to agree to smile like a demented homunculi for long stretches of time in order to sell a few more tickets to a mediocre horror movie. It saddens me that people have to do this sort of thing for scraps of money. If I thought they were part of the production and cheerfully promoting their own contribution, then it’s a fine subversion of reality. As it is it’s just a depressing wage-slave stunt that haunted me in all the wrong ways.
It was effective, though, as I remembered Smile as a result. I remembered it five months later, in fact, when I came across it on Amazon Prime and thought, oh, yeah, the movie with the creepy, soul-killing promo stunt. So, naturally, I watched it. I am not here to fight the machine. I’m just trying not to get sucked into it.
Smile is an okay horror film. It trades in some been-there, done-that tropes, it’s elevated by a solid performance by Sosie Bacon (of the Kevin Baconses), and it’s burdened by an unsatisfying ending that so easily could have been more interesting—but overall it works well enough. I got creeped out a little and jumped a few times. In the early going, Smile did serve to remind me of an interesting facet of horror films: The most effective horror movies leverage their complete control over your attention.
Smile is a horror story in the unbreakable curses tradition. A therapist named Dr. Rose Cotter(Sosie Bacon) meets a distressed patient who tells her that she’s being tortured by an evil force that shows her horrible hallucinations, often pretending to be people she loves and trusts. The girl becomes extremely agitated, seeing something that Rose cannot, and then becomes very calm, smiling in a stilted, deranged manner as she calmly slits her own throat right in front of Rose.
Rose soon begins experiencing hallucinations and realizes she’s been afflicted with the same curse, and slowly discovers that this “chain” of suicides goes back a long ways. Her whole life begins to unravel as she experiences visions no one else can see, becomes increasingly paranoid, and eventually engineers a doomed showdown with the spirit that is feeding off of everyone’s trauma.
This isn’t a terribly new idea, and stories like this bother me because of their futility: If you can’t ever break a curse, what’s the point of telling the story? But I understand that there are different strokes for different folks and all that, and there are some who find an unstoppable evil to be very frightening instead of very frustrating. The way the spirit takes over Rose’s perception, fooling her several times in the film into believing she’s seeing or doing things she is not, in fact, seeing or doing is also a bit of a cheat. These sorts of tricks allow the film to shock you or titillate you at zero plot cost, because it can make a mess of things just to get a rise out of you and then say psyche, never happened! and move on. I’m not a fan.
But in the early going of the movie there are some really effective moments, and they have a lot to do with control over what you see. We don’t think about in the course of most films, but you only get to see what the filmmakers want you to see. They control everything—where you’re looking, and what’s on the screen when you look. In Smile, there are several moments where the camera pulls away from what you think is the focus of the scene, and it always causes a little dissonance. When Dr. Cotter is in the center of the frame, reacting to something terrible we’ve just seen, we assume we’re meant to absorb her reaction and trauma. When the camera turns, it’s disturbing because it’s the opposite of our assumptions. When it turns slowly, it adds to our unease, because we want to see what’s sneaking up on us immediately, and the sense of helplessness that accompanies that is effective. It’s scary, because we’ve lost control.
It Actually Does Follow
All visual horror uses the camera to control your gaze—arguably, all film does this, but horror films are often more obvious and showy about it. Every jump scare that sends you into cardiac arrest is an exercise in forcing your gaze to go precisely where the filmmakers want you to look. In Smile, the most effective moments are when the camera goes wandering.
In a film like It Follows, on the other hand, the trick lies in not controlling your gaze. In that film, in which cursed individuals are followed by an inexorable force that appears in a variety of ghastly and familiar guises, always walking at a steady, methodical pace towards them, the viewer is invited to let their eyes dance over every frame as they search for that eerie, familiar gait. You keep trying to spot it as it walks slowly towards the characters, but it could be anywhere on the screen. It might seem like this is a subversion of the control aspect of horror movies, but it’s just a different form: Your gaze is still being directed. It’s just that it’s being directed everywhere all at once.
This is the sort of thing that, once you notice it, you can never un-notice it. Forever more I will notice when a film tugs my gaze in a specific direction, or refuses to show me what I desperately want to see. This is why knowledge is dangerous: You see the sausage being made and you can never forget the grinder is there.
Of course, I also could have written 1,000 words on why the smile is the creepiest of all expressions, because, damn, it is.
Next week: Skinamarink and the question of narrative minimalism.
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How old am I? My first video game system was an Atari 2600 knockoff my parents bought at a Sears. That, my friends, is old.
Let’s not contemplate the misery of a freelance writer who has to write about whatever insane bullshit you people are pumping into Google in order to earn a few pennies.
Sometimes horror films land on an image that is pure nightmare fuel, and someone smiling at you from the middle distance in an unblinking, unbroken way is, admittedly, what scientists call fucking terrifying. Try it next time you go to your local watering hole: You will be pepper-sprayed and possibly exorcised by the evening’s end.
Is “I Am Not Here to Fight the Machine” the title of my memoir? Maybe. But only if this is the cover art:
Then again, I often get creeped out by my own internal monologue, and I jump every time one of my cats rubs up against my legs. I also refuse to ride roller coasters. In short, I am not a brave man. Thank you.
Every time I see this character name, the theme song from Welcome Back, Kotter! plays in my head. And now in yours, too. HA!
One thing I never understand in these movies is characters who feel compelled to tell other people about their demonic hallucinations, because this always leads to institutionalization or arrest. If I was cursed by an evil spirit that kept showing me terrible things, I wouldn’t tell a soul. I’d just start drinking more.
I feel similarly towards exercise: If I just have to do it again tomorrow, why bother?
I mean, I don’t know about you, but whenever I have unsettlingly realistic hallucinations, when I wake up I’ve burned down someone’s house and lost my pants.
When I was small, I have distinct memories of always feeling like something was following me to the bathroom when I got up in the middle of the night, and I knew I had to resist the urge to turn around. Today I am older and wiser and I know the only thing following me to the bathroom at 3AM is a cat, demanding belly rubs. Sometimes being a grown up is kind of good.
The only thing that would have improved this excellent movie would be if the characters could consciously choose the form of It and someone chose the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Who also sports a terrifying grin, come to think of it.
Much like my DIY haircut.