Directed by Michael Gallagher. Cast: Caitlin Gerard, Melanie Papalia, Shane Dawson, Andrew James Allen, Roger Bart, Keith David, Toby Turner, Michael Traynor, Liza Weil, Jana Winternitz, Nikki Limo, Billy St. John, Patrick O'Sullivan. 2012 94 minutes Rated: (for strong violence, language, and some drug use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 7, 2012.
"Something tells me Smiley's going to be really popular this Halloween," says professional computer hacker Zane (Andrew James Allen) late in "Smiley," a new low-budget horror film being released exclusively at select AMC theaters mere weeks before said holiday. Though the physical concept of the character is pretty coola killer with a deformed human face, sewn-up eyes, and a large, sliced-in smilethe picture itself is a botch job that will likely come and go with little fanfare. The chances of seeing a bunch of people dressed as Smiley this October 31st is giving too much credit to a project that will be forgotten before it has any chance of becoming more than a minor pop-cultural footnote.
New college freshman Ashley (Caitlin Gerard) is excited to be away from home and sharing a nice off-campus house with roommate Proxy (Melanie Papalia) for roughly three hours. It is at this point that she learns about Internet urban legend Smiley, a cyber slasher who suddenly appears behind his victims during chat room sessions when the person on the other side types three times, "I did it for the lulz." Ashley sees it happen with her own eyes at a party, then tries it again with Proxy just to prove that it's a hoax. When the anonymous chat stranger ends up dead, however, Ashley becomes increasingly paranoid and guilt-ridden, convinced that Smiley knows her identity and is coming after her next. Who is Smiley, though? A flesh-and-blood psychopath (unlikely), or a technological embodiment of all the evil stored on the web?
"Smiley" was directed by 23-year-old Michael Gallagher and co-written by Glasgow Phillips (Comedy Central's "South Park"), but just because the guy at the helm is barely out of college is not enough to give the inadequacies of his debut feature a pass. Overwrought and unevenly actedone can plainly tell who are professionals and who are the novices in the ensemblethe movie's additional lack of resources are a given when the same identifiable extras keep popping up in scene after scene, usually wearing the same clothes, to boot. The idea behind the plot proper is creepier than the deliveryevery would-be scare is telegraphed from a mile awaywhile the threat often seems to be coming more from the dim actions of the protagonists rather than an actual unstoppable force coming after them. The most fascinating scenes are the philosophical classroom discussions led by Professor Clayton (Roger Bart), digging deeper than expected into the nature of evil and anthropomorphism within the universe, but the rest of the film is just dumbed-down horror fodder. The ending, especially, demands leaps in logic not earned by the filmmakers. It turns "Smiley" not only into a far more ordinary movie than initially meets the eye, but also one that is off-puttingly heartless and cynical.