Michael J. Gallagher (Interns) wrote the screenplay and directed this film, based on a story by Ezra Cooperstein, the film is Smiley, which has been promoted as “a slasher film for the internet generation” with the “world’s first viral serial killer” as the focal point, a guy with stitched eyes and a slashed-cut smile across his monstrous face.
The story is a simple horror tale, a twist on many other slasher flicks of the past. Think Scream mixed with Candyman and thrown into a modern “Chatroulette” setting. An urban legend is going around campus about a character named “Smiley” who appears, while on anonymous video chat, behind a person after the person they are chatting to types “I did it for the lulz” three times, and sticks a knife into their throat, or chest, or eye, killing them. When Ashley (Caitlin Gerard) begins a new year at a new college she moves into a house with a girl named Proxy (Melania Papalia) who is a part of a trolling website where offensive and disturbing images and videos are posted and shared with like-minded people. Along with Proxy, Ashley goes to a party to meet with some of these users that Proxy knows from the website in question, and witnesses a guy typing “I did it for the lulz” to someone on a chat site, which is followed up with Smiley appearing behind them and stabbing them to death. These instances begin to pile up, and in order to see if Smiley is real, Ashley decides to try it out herself, and it works as she watches a stranger get sliced open by this facially disfigured monster villain. Paranoia and fear take over as Ashley begins to look over her shoulder, feeling like she’s being followed and watched by Smiley. She talks to the police but they think she is part of a prank and refuse to take her complaints seriously. She seeks other help, all the while feeling like she is losing a grip on reality as she wonders whether or not this murderous legend with an eternal grin is real or not.
The use of the internet in horror has been attempted various times since the internet began, but it rarely results in a good movie. The Den (2013) was an effective horror film that used the internet to good effect, but I can’t think of many others. Smiley attempts to use the anonymous chat websites, like Omegle and Chatroulette, in a way to create a new movie monster, and the attempt to sell masks is easy to see, this film seems to purely exist in order to create a new slasher icon, but it falls flat when it comes to the story itself, and the villain, regardless of how good the design of the face is, just isn’t as scary or intimidating as he should be. I found the tension and sinister atmosphere that should exist in horror films of this type to be non-existent here, and while the performances were mostly fine, I just felt like it was a failed attempt at bringing fear to a modern age.
Melanie Papalia (The Den) was decent here, and I enjoy watching her, she’s a fine actress and I enjoyed her performance, though it wasn’t close to being as good as her work in the aforementioned “The Den”. Caitlin Gerard (Magic Mike) was a decent lead, bringing a paranoid and afraid character that did what she needed to do, but sadly there was so little development of these characters beyond the obvious things that it was hard to root for, or against, any of them. Shane Dawson (Not Cool) as nerdy hacker, Binder, was okay, but again fairly one dimensional, and the same can be said for the character of Zane, a super-hacker egomaniac played by Andrew James Allen (The Lovely Bones). I did find some of the side characters highly infuriating to watch too, their over-the-top and nonsensical acting making me question why they were hired at all. The lead performances were decent though, and one of the stronger points of a disappointing film.
The effects and such, well, there isn’t much to say about that side of things. Aside from the wound work and the odd bit of blood, there’s little else to look at, and it just felt like a very tame and uneventful horror film. Where there is a dark tense doom to classic slasher films like Friday the 13th and Halloween, Smiley merely uses a couple of jump scares and the same reoccurring Smiley-jumping-into-shot move in order to elicit scares, and it failed, sadly.
I didn’t hate the film, and I think that whoever designed Smiley’s face deserves credit for creating a creepy and cool looking horror character, but the film relies on that way too much, letting the creativity and story fall into generic and haphazard territory. Cold characterization, bland horror scenes, and dialogue that felt like it was trying way too hard to be “current”, Smiley will be a bargain bin horror film for years to come, which is fine, because it might just be worth giving it a shot if it costs less than a bottle of lemonade. “I did it for the lulz”?… maybe you should have “done it for the scares”.