In the new hit horror movie Smile, witnessing a suicide is itself a death sentence. After seeing a patient affect a disturbing rictus grin and then slit her own throat, Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) enlists her cop ex-boyfriend (Kyle Gallner) to help trace a chain of recent suicides back as far as they can. As the newest witness, she wants to know: What’s the longest anyone has survived after seeing one of these disturbing events before they, in turn, killed themselves? Apart from one mysterious guy who’s beaten it outright, the absolute maximum they can find is seven days. Is this an homage to The Ring, a now-classic horror movie that’s about to turn 20, or is The Ring just so embedded into the horror lexicon that its doom-research structure has become as common as contortionist ghosts and masked murderers?
It’s probably a bit of both—especially now, 20 years later, when it’s easier to trace the chain-reaction horror trends that followed in the wake of The Ring. In October 2002, the movie was a spooky outlier, and its opening scene, where a pair of teen girls in a bedroom teasingly fake each other out with a scary story, seems designed to actively recall the wave of Scream-inspired youth slashers that had only just crested a year or two earlier. A playfully dismissive “I hate television” is one of the movie’s first lines, and while The Ring isn’t as steeped in pop culture as Scream (in either its dialogue or its adult characters’ style), in retrospect it’s bidding a doomy farewell to so many 20th-century touchstones: Here is a movie about a killer VHS tape, where characters receive creepy landline phone calls just before their demise, all investigated by a newspaper reporter. VHS, non-cellular telephones and print journalism would all be receiving their own portentous calls within the decade; the last major VHS movie arrived in early 2006.
Of course, The Ring was a remake of the Japanese film Ringu, from 1998; only four years earlier, but somehow appearing much further from the old-ways abyss, as if the move was its own cursed videotape, a few more years of traveling down the line. The Ring’s status as a remake is key to understanding so much of what followed: Horror in the 2000s featured a number of American versions of Asian movies about evil spirits, including The Grudge and Pulse, as well as a wave of slasher Americana remakes like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween and Friday the 13th. This trend, along with the grimy tortures of Saw and Hostel, gave way to intentionally unpolished grit of the Paranormal Activity series, which in turn led into a statelier treatment of demonic forces with the Conjuring movies, plus its various spin-offs and rip-offs. The bravura technique James Wan brought to The Conjuring could be seen as an influence on the current wave of quiet, slow-burn genre movies—so-called “elevated” (or, with a kind of snarky branding, “A24”) horror.
Smile doesn’t exactly bring things full circle (or, if you will, full outline-of-a-covered-well). But it does absorb a lot of horror history and let it seep into corners of the movie. Conceptually, yes, the story is a lot like The Ring, with a daisy chain of demises that appear impossible to avoid. Some Final Destination and It Follows make it in there, too, because the characters are struggling against an ineffable curse, rather than a spirit with a specific target or grudge. There’s also slasher-movie gore, and the recurring image of a forced, unnerving smile appearing to haunt and then take over its victims operates as a kind of de facto mask—disturbingly expressive, rather than hockey-mask blank, with a similarly unchanging visage.
But Smile is most pointed when addressing a newer trend in horror filmmaking: See, the chain of horrific deaths is also a never-ending sequence of traumas, on top of which our heroine Rose is already reeling, still, from a traumatic childhood incident, also involving watching someone die. There’s barely any sub to this text: Trauma lingers, trauma kills, no way around it. Is Smile capitalizing on a recent tendency to talk about horror with a kind of po-faced reverence, explaining how a new horror movie is really about grief, toxicity, gaslighting and, yes, trauma? (As opposed to, you know, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a movie about, what, healing?) Or is writer-director Parker Finn offering up that easy explanation with a grin as sickly as the movie’s central image? I tend to think Smile has at least a hint of the latter, in its mordant humor and knowing deployment of good, old-fashioned jump scares; Finn seems to understand that tasteful evocations of trauma, grief and guilt can be rattled by a loud BOO! just as well as anything else.
This is not to characterize Smile as some kind of horror super-predator, accumulating all the powers of two decades’ worth of horror trends. In a lot of ways, it really just a skillfully made Ring redux with some extra psychological baggage, and it can’t quite match Gore Verbinski’s synthesis of folk horror imagery and music-video bullshit into a horrorshow that now feels so immediately like the turn of the century. Smile does, however, fit with this year’s crop of unusually sly and omnivorous mainstream horror pictures. It can stand alongside X, which comes on like another Texas Chain Saw riff but is emotionally expansive enough to accommodate the florid melodrama of its recent prequel Pearl; and Barbarian, which never forgets to provide wild carnival thrills even as it plays tricky games around the endless state of high alert that women are forced to maintain at all times.
All of these movies, to varying degrees, play like exploitation with flashes of keen intelligence, zig-zagging around the genre’s trend-lines rather than following a straightforward path. The Ring ushered out the VHS era while confirming that horror, a genre of sequels and niche movies for much of the previous decade, was going to stick around after Scream; this year’s horror class may similarly make more sense in retrospect, once some additional trends have solidified and been run into a grave. Right now, though, Smile feels like it’s killing its own pastiche as it goes, as if preparing the genre for a trip into the great, scary unknown.
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.