Before diving into any serious criticism, it must be noted that the version of Smiley recently screened for press was not the final cut. That being said, any changes made to this ridiculous and only sometimes-entertaining horror movie would most likely only be lipstick on a pig, but who knows? Stranger things have happened.
Smiley strives for two things at once: to follow in the footsteps of classic slasher films like Halloween and Friday the 13th, and to attempt a modern, technological update on that trope. Sometimes, it succeeds, but mostly it fails, due in large part to the poor acting, low production values, and a weak script that bogs down what might otherwise have been an interesting film.
The plot rests on a 21st century urban legend about a killer called Smiley. The lore goes like this: you log into a chatroom, perhaps something anonymous like ChatRoulette, find someone willing to talk, then type “I did it for the lulz” three times, and wham—Smiley appears and kills the person with whom you’re chatting. This is all detailed in a Scream-like opening sequence.
Enter Ashley (Caitlin Gerard, previously seen in The Social Network), a young woman who has just started college and is living on her own for the first time. She has a troubled past, having lost her mother some years ago, and she’s dealing with some anxiety and depression of her own. Her roommate, Proxy (Melanie Papalia), is annoyingly bubbly and something of a party girl, the polar opposite of Ashley’s introverted, bookish persona. But Proxy soon has Ashley hitting up some crazy off-campus parties and meeting some enticing but probably dangerous boys. Ashley and Proxy get wasted, head home and then decide to try out the urban legend for themselves. Of course, they find out that it’s all too real, and watch, horrified, as Smiley appears and murders the guy they are chatting with.
From this point on, the film kind of spins out of control. Director Michael Gallagher tries to walk the line between traditional horror and some sort of Matrix-style, self-referential, technophobic statement on modernity and the power of the Internet. It’s a strange mix. The film is shot ham-handedly, relying mostly on awkward single shots that switch back and forth predictably. Occasionally, an epic crane shot is used, but for something undeserving like a character walking into her house. If the idea is to make the proceedings feel ominous, it doesn’t really work. And there are way too many cheap scare tactics—a character turns around and suddenly comes face to face with the monster … except it’s really her best friend. The audience yelps, then sighs with relief. It’s too easy. Juxtapose that with an absurd theme of the Internet developing, for lack of a better word, consciousness, and you can see how the film becomes a bit confusing and muddled.
In addition to being a bit of a mess, Smiley has given birth to some controversy, as the director has been receiving death threats from certain groups. (No spoilers, but a quick Google search will reveal the details to anyone so inclined.) This type of knee-jerk reaction was infuriating 20 years ago in response to The Satanic Verses, and it’s just plain stupid here, given the shoddy material. Those who are upset by Smiley, as well as those who are just looking for a good horror movie, would do best to turn their attention elsewhere.
Director: Michael Gallagher
Writer: Glasgow Phillips, Michael J. Gallagher
Starring: Caitlin Gerard, Melanie Papalia, Shane Dawson, Andrew James Allen, Liza Weil
Release Date: Oct. 12, 2012