"Evil wears a smile"
After discovering an urban legend of a demented serial killer called Smiley who comes to kill unsuspecting online chatters after they type in ‘I did it for the lulz’ three times, mentally-fragile teenager Ashley must figure out if she has gone insane or whether she has become the next victim when she puts the legend to the test.
A slasher film about a chat room serial killer? What is this, 1997? By 2012, Smiley was already outdated before it was made. I guess the director never saw Cry Wolf, which is basically this film but made in 2005. The latest version of an urban legend horror story with a ‘contemporary’ twist – say the name of some mythical boogeyman and they magically appear to kill the person daft enough to speak – Smiley is some stewed up concoction of Candyman, Scream and A Nightmare on Elm Street, with only a fraction of the entertainment value of any of those three.
Starting in cliched, but admittedly promising fashion, with drop-dead gorgeous Nikki Limo parading in front of the camera in very little (if this had been the 80s…) before being diced by Smiley, the film quickly veers well away what you expected it would be into something more moralistic and preachy about online trolling and the damage it can do. It follows a simple narrative where the two leading females try to get to the bottom of the urban legend whilst Smiley pops up every once and a while to kill another victim. That’s it, a rinse and repeat story which quickly outstays its welcome (if it ever had one).
Smiley relies far too heavily on jump scares and false alarms to frighten the audience. Literally every time a character is on a computer, the camera closes in on them and there’s a jump scare of someone behind them. The carnage, when it does sporadically show up, is hardly gory nor original and is mostly confined to the tiny chat windows on the computer screen. Once you’ve seen one of these attacks, you’ve seen them all as they’re all identical. Director Michael Gallagher originally started out making Youtube videos and you can tell by his approach here – lots of the dream sequences are flashy and heavily-cut and edited together but lack any sort of real substance. The guy has little idea of how to craft a proper horror film and generate some real tension and scares and opts to go back to the BOO moments whenever he needs to wake the audience up. Believe me, they will need waking up.
The final act totally ruins any lingering hope that the film would pick itself up in the run-in. In a twist lifted straight out of April Fool’s Day and Scream, the killer starts moralising about trolling and becoming the first viral serial killer. There’s even a “Smiley will be popular at Halloween” nod to the audience, almost as if the makers of the film are desperate for Smiley to actually become an iconic horror character that people would dress up as. Aside from a memorable mask which no doubt assisted greatly in the marketing, Smiley is just your generic man-in-a-mask with a knife. There have been countless killers before him and there will be after. Instead of trying to create the next super slasher villain, the producers of these types of films should just let the fame come organically. If you’ve got a cool killer, then they’ll win over the crowds.
Lead actress Caitlin Gerard is arguably the best part of the film and at least brings some nervous energy to the role of Ashley, even if the script she has to read from is atrocious. She’s got a great high-pitched scream though so make sure the sound is a little lower than usual in case you want a window smashing. Roger Bart’s professor character is there to provide a potential red herring and spouts off a load of pseudo-serious stuff about reason and logic, simply to try and add some seriousness and depth to the shallow narrative. Long-time character actor Keith David of They Live and The Thing fame cashes in a quick cheque as a police detective. Stare at the poster long enough and you’ll see more of him than you do here. A couple of internet ‘celebrities’ make cameo appearances (Shane Dawson and Toby Turner) but I have no clue who they are famous for, nor do I have any desire to find out.
In an era of silly viral things such as MOMO, I’m sure fifteen-year-old kids will get a kick out of Smiley but for most grown-ups, it’s just another example of how dumbed down our society is becoming, where we place more onus on things that don’t or shouldn’t matter than the things that are important. Opting to go for the obvious quick wins rather than crafting something atmospheric and scary, Smiley is just Candyman for the Snapchat/streaming generation.
Director(s): Michael J. Gallagher
Writer(s): Glasgow Phillips (screenplay), Michael J. Gallagher (screenplay), Ezra Cooperstein (story)
Actor(s): Caitlin Gerard, Melanie Papalia, Shane Dawson, Andrew James Allen, Liza Weil, Roger Bart, Keith David
Duration: 90 mins