AUSTIN (WKRG) — Horror films love their curses. From saying an infamous name five times (Candyman) to watching a killer videotape (The Ring) to narrowly escaping certain death in a disaster or accident (the Final Destination franchise), the genre loves stories where characters say, see or do something that condemns them to certain death … unless they unlock the mystery behind the curse and avoid disaster.  Occasionally the person laboring under the curse may deserve a little karmic payback (Drag Me to Hell, Thinner), but even then, the curse always seems to mete out a punishment far greater than the original offense. 

In Smile, the new horror film from writer-director Parker Finn that had its World Premiere on Opening Night of Fantastic Fest 2022, Sosie Bacon plays Rose Cotter, a psychologist who works with high-risk patients in an emergency unit at a hospital.  When a young woman commits suicide during her intake meeting with Rose, the young mental health practitioner begins to doubt herself professionally and to come unraveled personally.   

As Rose investigates the young woman’s background, a pattern begins to emerge, but it’s a pattern that leans toward a paranormal explanation, not the kind of rational, psychological diagnosis in which Rose specializes. When Rose tries to explain this curse of sorts to her superiors and to her own personal therapist, the people in Rose’s life begin to question her sanity.  She understands that she is becoming part of the deadly pattern and only has herself to rely on. 

Parker Finn, cinematographer Charlie Sarroff and editor Elliot Greenberg collaborate to create disorienting visuals to put the audience in the midst of Rose’s breakdown (paranormal experiences?).  The camera tilts and turns upside down.  The edits help jumble the chronology.  The audience wonders what is real and what is imagined, just like Rose.  Everyone in the production is clearly on the same page, combining their respective talents to achieve a very effective look and feel to the film.   

If it remained submerged in this head trip narrative approach, Smile would’ve risen far above the average studio horror release.  Unfortunately as it progresses, Smile becomes a bit uneven. Well-staged moments (like a bravura sequence at a child’s birthday party) are diluted by the usual jump scare parlor tricks – the loud ringing of a telephone or the sudden alarm from a home security system.  When Smile sticks to creating an atmosphere of dread and tension, it succeeds. When it simply gooses up the volume to startle audiences with momentary bursts of sound, it feels lazy.  

Investigating the strange curse our heroine finds herself entangled in takes center stage, but Smile works best as a portrait of a woman descending into madness.  The reason behind her growing instability is the foundation of the horror narrative, but the exploration of how mental illness can ravage someone gives the story its humanity.  We can all identify with being overwhelmed by life, that feeling where just one more bad break might send you right over the edge.   

Sosie Bacon captures the nuances of a woman clinging to her surroundings while feeling her grip on reality loosening with each passing hour. Given that most films are shot out of order, Bacon’s carefully calibrated descent into madness is all the more impressive because each moment is part of a psychological whole that must remain consistent in its incremental downward trajectory. I was reminded of Sam Neill’s stellar performance in John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness

The payoff of a curse film always comes down to the elegance of its solution.  The premise of Smile creates a puzzle box of sorts.  The audience learns some of the rules along the way and tries to solve the riddle for themselves.  It’s like an escape room of the mind.  Some curse films fashion a clever way out of the protagonist’s predicament (the elegant solution I’m referring to).  Others simply take a hammer to the puzzle box and smash it to pieces.  Smile falls somewhere between those two extremes.  I wanted to be dazzled.  Instead, I found myself wanting a better conclusion to an otherwise solid film. 

Smile opens in theaters nationwide on September 29.

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