Director: Parker Finn
Writer: Parker Finn
Cast: Sosie Bacon, Kyle Gallner, Gillian Zinser, Jessie T. Usher, Kal Penn, Robin Weigert, Caitlin Stasey
Producers: Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, Isaac Klausner, Robert Salerno
Music: Cristobal Tapia de Veer
Cinematographer: Charlie Sarroff
Editor: Elliot Greenberg
Running time: 115mins
What’s the story: When a patient kills themselves in front of her, Dr. Rose Cotter (Bacon) soon discovers she has fallen to a demonic curse. She has only days to find a way to beat it, before breaking out into a rictus grin and ending her own life.
What’s the verdict: Parker Finn knows his horror. Smile tips its hat to a sprawl of fright flicks, from The Shining to The Entity to Fallen. But mostly, it is indebted to the curse movie, in which a character realises they are damned unless they can undo the dark magic blighting them. Those familiar with Ring, It Follows, Ju-on, She Dies Tomorrow, and The Night of the Demon may be surprised at how openly Finn lifts and shifts large chunks of the tales that inspired him. Quite rightly those same audiences may also wonder if he’ll bring anything of his own to the party.
He does, but it will be up to the individual horror fan to decide whether the freshness of his take outweighs the volume of the “homage.” For us, Finn succeeds in using the traditional curse template to explore topical themes of work-life stress, social anxiety, and a world beset by random violence. Although there is little doubt that Rose’s curse is genuine, her behaviour takes the form of those societal maladies.
Here, the debuting writer-director receives two valuable assists. Firstly, his own conceit that those who die messily by their own hand do so smiling. In a world where violence increasingly erupts unannounced, the smile has become less than trustworthy. Particularly when it’s an overzealous grin as displayed here. None more so than from Caitlin Stasey as Rose’s patient, whose wide-mouthed smirk is so striking it formed the poster campaign.
Second is Bacon’s performance as Rose. Serious-faced, but able to radiate vulnerability as reality shatters around her, Bacon is a fantastic gravitational force, keeping the movie’s excesses from spinning out of orbit.
Certainly, sterling support comes from Kyle Gallner as Rose’s police detective ex, Jessie. T. Usher, as her current, exasperated beau, Kal Penn as a medical colleague, and Gillian Zinser as Rose’s uncomprehending sister. Robin Weigert (forever Deadwood’s Calamity Jane) is also memorable as Rose’s kindly-faced shrink, and is given one of the film’s best scare moments. But, this is Bacon’s show, and she devours her lead role. Particularly in a birthday party from Hell scene that is a masterclass in comic-horror escalation. Smile is a dark movie, but it doesn’t forget to deliver outrageous giggles.
Being well-versed in horror cinema, Finn knows where to put his camera. Along with Relic cinematographer Charlie Sarroff, he has created a striking looking chiller. Dizzying aerial shots and inverted cityscapes capture Rose’s shifting worldview as the curse bears down upon her. The director also allows himself strong moments of horror (enough to earn the film a cert. 18 in the UK), which sometimes catches the uneasy laughter in the throat.
The final moments arguably weaken what has gone before, but Smile is recommended for those who like their horror strong and flavourful.