Rated R. At AMC Boston Common and South Bay Center, Regal Fenway and suburban theaters.
“Smile,” a vividly explicit horror outing, is basically an old-fashioned detective story with a ticking clock.
Like the current hit monster movie “Barbarian,” “Smile” carries you along with its storytelling verve. This marks the feature debut for writer-director Parker Finn, who’s adapted his award-winning 2020 Sundance short “Laura Hasn’t Slept.”
As the title indicates (and as the film repeatedly explains) the evil “entity” that pursues people and prompts them to kill themselves while, yes, smiling, is seen only by the victim before they commit violent, disturbing suicides.
Suicides, we discover, that are never ever performed alone. For part of the malevolent curse is that they must be witnessed — so that the entity can be passed along to the next victim.
“Smile” begins with a knowing awareness that makes Finn’s film both scary and humorous. Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon, daughter of Kevin and Kyra Sedgwick) is treating psychiatric patients and there’s a particularly loud one screaming he’s about to die.
He doesn’t, which is the first of many “fun” twists. But a disturbed woman is brought to Dr. Cotter who explains what is happening to her and why she is terrified. And then she offs herself, horribly, with a big, weird, scary looking smile.
Cotter, traumatized, takes a while to realize that, just as she didn’t believe that dead woman’s story, no one believes hers. They think she’s crazy.
That list includes Rose’s live-in lover and fiance Trevor (Jessie T. Usher); her ex-boyfriend, now helpfully a cop, Joel (Kyle Gallner); her psychiatric facility boss (Kal Penn); and her totally clueless therapist (Robin Weigert).
And in a category by herself, there’s Rose’s skeptical, scene-stealing, very bossy married sister Laura (Caitlin Stasey), easily the funniest and most fun of all the supporting players.
As Rose goes back 25 years to her dramatic childhood with a suicidal mother and a guilt that will never cease, “Smile” loses momentum. As the pace slackens, the nearly two-hour expansion from that short seems misguided as the fun evaporates and we’re down to a cliche conclusion.
Bacon ably carries the clue-seeking Ruth to the finish line, aided by an unusually distinctive score by Chile’s Cristobel Tapia de Veer (“The White Lotus”) and gruesomely fine special effects work.
Finn adds a grace note I believe as Rose attends her nephew Jackson’s (Matthew Lamb) birthday party. I’d guess Parker intentionally cast the kid for his eerie resemblance to Peter Billingsley in “A Christmas Story.”