Producers: Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, Isaac Klausner and Robert Salerno   Director: Parker Finn   Screenplay: Parker Finn   Cast: Sosie Bacon, Jessie T. Usher, Kyle Gallner, Robin Weigert, Caitlin Stasey, Kal Penn, Rob Morgan, Judy Reyes, Gillian Zinser, Dora Kiss, Nick Arapoglou, Sara Kapner, Kevin Keppy and Jack Sochet   Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Grade: B-

Given the number of them produced over the years, horror movie are inevitably derivative, and that’s certainly true of Parker Finn’s debut feature.  But “Smile” takes some familiar elements, cleverly tweaks them and then uses them stylishly to fashion a tale that’s genuinely creepy and unsettling; it doesn’t reinvent the wheel but spins it cleverly.  If only Finn had been a bit less intent on employing all the tricks in his toolbox in expanding his 2020 short film “Laura Hasn’t Slept” and editor Elliot Greenberg more energetic in his trimming, the movie could have avoided feeling somewhat repetitive and overlong.   

Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is a dedicated therapist at a public medical complex, treating patients like near-catatonic, jabbering Carl Renken (Jacket Sochet).  But she’s unable to help Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey), a graduate student who comes in distraught after watching one of her professors, Gabriel Munoz, bludgeon himself to death.  The trauma of that experience, Laura says, has resulted in a grotesque entity stalking her that only she can see, taking the form of people staring at her with a sinister smile.  Suddenly Laura sees the figure in the consulting room, breaks a vase and then uses a shard to slit her throat as Rose watches, grinning sardonically as she does so.

What follows is not unpredictable, given the many films—from Japanese classics like “Cure” and “Ringu” to more modern successors like “It Follows”—Finn has obviously seen and clearly admires.  Rose becomes the entity’s next victim.  She’s an ideal candidate, already having suffered trauma as a child resulting from guilt over the death of her mother (Dora Kiss) and estrangement from her sister Holly (Gillian Zinser) and her husband (Nick Arapoglou).  She begins having nightmares and seeing the grinning entity herself, which sends her back to her former therapist Madeline Northcott (Robin Weigert) for advice.  Her cat Mustache disappears.  Her fiancé Trevor (Jessie T. Usher) grows increasingly concerned at her behavior, as does her superior Dr. Desai (Kal Penn), who orders to take a leave of absence.

Increasingly terrified at the visions, Rose enlists her old boyfriend, cop Joel (Kyle Gallner), for help, and learns from Professor Munoz’s widow (Judy Reyes) of the horrifying visions her husband had been experiencing before his suicide.  With Joel’s help she uncovers a long string of interconnected suicides, broken only by the survival of a confessed murderer (Rob Morgan) who offers some information on what she’s dealing with.  Ultimately she will have to face her own trauma and come face-to-face with the demon that’s tormenting her in the form of people, some of them closest to her, who flash that unnerving smile.

Finn proves skillful in the genre tropes.  With cinematographer Charlie Sarroff, he proves adept in fashioning slow tracking shots across rooms that land on an important detail, and with Greenberg and composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer he offers some masterly jump scares.  Sarroff, working in conjunction with production designer Lester Cohen, maintains a dark atmosphere of foreboding throughout, as does Tapia de Veer when not letting loose at the gotcha moments.

The film is also fortunate in its casting.  At the center Bacon captures Rose’s growing terror effectively, though her fingernail-biting, which become nail-chewing before it’s over, becomes a bit aggravating.  Among the others Weigert and Zinser are most impressive, though Gallner also offers solid support and Stasey, Morgan, Reyes and Sochet score in what are basically extended cameos.

“Smile” sags in the midsection, and one gets the feeling that Finn had trouble figuring out how to wrap things up, piling twist on twist and climax on climax before finally opting for a sequel-teasing close.  But even then we’re left with one important question—at least one important to feline-fanciers—left unanswered: who, or what, was responsible for what happened to Mustache, and how was it done?