Director: Michael Gallagher
Starring: Caitlin Gerard, Melanie Papalia, Shane Dawson, Toby Turner, Andrew James Allen, Roger Bart, Keith David, Liza Weil
A thunderously stupid horror movie of slapdash construction and ping-pong tonalities, “Smiley” builds its narrative around the notion of a viral video serial killer who’s summoned by way of a specific web chat incantation. Impressive only for its ability to chase unlikeliness and viewer frustration down an ever-increasing rabbit hole of bewilderment, director Michael Gallagher’s motivation-free genre exercise is populated with characters who, when not busy exhibiting the decision-making and inner emotional landscapes of 12-year-olds, are pantomiming the same age group’s mindset of adults and scariness — all ideas which they’ve absorbed through cultural osmosis.
College freshman Ashley Brooks (Caitlin Gerard, possessing a nice smile and beatific presence) is still recovering from the suicide of her mother just a year earlier, but becomes fast friends with Proxy (Melanie Papalia) when she moves into an off-campus house with her prior to her first semester. Proxy takes Ashley to a party where she introduces her to a bunch of anonymous users of a message board she frequents. These include alpha male Zane (Andrew James Allen, getting his “acting” on), who flirts seemingly by talking up his interest in “the intersection of the strange and the retarded,” as well as Binder (Shane Dawson), a meek kid bullied and kicked out of the party ostensibly for flagging inappropriate content like child pornography.
Against the ongoing backdrop of a reason and ethics class taught by Professor Clayton (Roger Bart, coming the closest to escaping this mess unscathed), Ashley and Proxy decide to test out the urban legend of Smiley by typing three times “I did it for the lulz,” which sounds like something a stoned, kitten-loving Limp Bizkit fan would have dreamed up circa 2000. They then witness a murder, and soon other members of their little group are felled as well. Fearing that her fragile sanity is unraveling, Ashley reaches out at various points to Proxy, Zane and Binder, trying to get to the bottom of this brutal killer.
The script for “Smiley,” by Gallagher and Glasgow Phillips, is a hodge-podge of clichés and nipped bits from many other horror movies, from “The Ring” and “Bloody Mary” to the “Scream” sequels. Its handling and portrayal of the average twentysomething’s relationship with technology is frequently silly, and its efforts to achieve notional topicality by way of basing its story around a Chat Roulette-type website already feel dated and lame. The movie tries to paper over all these deficiencies by way of spurious leaps in logic (“If we report this there’s gonna be press!”) and some half-hearted mumbo-jumbo about the Internet achieving a greater consciousness (“From ‘The Terminator,’ like Skynet — or like Neo!”). All other shortcomings (of which there are many) and red herrings are “solved” by a lazy, post-modern twist that feels cobbled together like a Mad-Lib.
“Smiley” is a movie of obviously limited budget and resources (hence Proxy and Ashley’s house instead of dorms, and a decided lack of extras in certain scenes), but its failures run much deeper than that. It never locates an ability to outthink these problems or, indeed, indicates much in the way of sustained effort on that front, and so the result leans on jump-scares and sound design in an attempt to summon some small modicum of dread or tension.
On a purely visual level, the actual character of Smiley — with stitched shut eyes and a carved jack-o-lantern grin, is creepily effective, not unlike the striking slasher Chromeskull of a couple years ago, from “Laid to Rest” and its sequel. But everything about “Smiley” is nonsensical, derivative, or both — right down to the smug cop (Keith David) who reacts with condescension to Ashley’s third act panic, and an air-quote shocking ending that then tries to leave room for ambiguity or a sequel but only further undercuts the stupid narrative choices made by its makers. Leave this turd alone.
NOTE: For more information, visit www.SmileyMovie.com.
Written by: Brent Simon
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.