Opening in AMC theaters this weekend is Michael J. Gallagher’s Smiley, a new genre film that attempts to tap into modern technology. Unfortunately, the only thing it taps into is a wellspring of generic slasher tropes that mainstream horror fans will
scoff throw popcorn at.
The movie follows Ashley (Caitlin Gerard) as a teenager (even though she looks 35-years-old) beginning college. She soon meets her roommate, Proxy (Melanie Papalia, whom also looks 35-years-old), who takes her to parties on the seemingly empty campus. There, they meet a bunch of douchebags (who all look 35-years old and have super fancy hair) that act like complete assholes for absolutely no reason. All of these horrible guys and unlikeable “teenage” girls continue to run into each other as they explore the myth of Smiley, a killer who appears in a Candyman-like fashion. In their version of Chatoulette, if you say “I did it for the lulz” (lulz means “laughs”) 3 times, Smiley will appear behind the person they’re talking to and murder them. And then, supposedly, he will come after you.
The premise is actually pretty sweet, so the failure comes in the actual execution of the film. Smiley isn’t scary because it doesn’t feel real – the kids are all 30+ years old, the campus is usually empty, and there’s a plethora of weird character dialogue (like when a girl states: “I just smoked pot, did that come out right?” Or, after one night, the protagonist’s father tells his daughter that she can quit college, something NO parent would ever do). Even the fun “party” montage feels incredibly forced and lame (it shows like 2 drinks and the guys drawing on a kid’s face. That’s every party, right? Barf).
The film’s believability also comes into question when most of Smiley’s appearances come in dream sequences. Yes, dream sequences. Smiley continues to attack the girl in her dreams, yet she’s convinced it’s real. Outside of Smiley, the filmmakers fill in chunks of emptiness with an assault of lame fake scares. Ultimately, everything the viewer sees in the movie isn’t actually scary.
It’s bad enough that this cool concept (Candyman with a hint of A Nightmare on Elm Street) is ruined by the fake scares, but the ship is finally sunk by a heavy dose of exposition that attempts at an extreme and unnecessary clarity. Smiley (the movie, not the character) is always apologizing for being “weird”. The filmmakers have a “hacker” character (the one that has Anonymous in an uproar) who over-explains his role and then lists off a million of his enemies that could be behind the murders. Then they explain it all over again, this time concluding that maybe Smiley is just pure evil? Everyone is an expert at something, mostly computers, and there are a lot of stupid red herrings.
In the end, it all comes apart when the big twist is revealed. The killer or killers’ motive is not only impossible, but also straight up bullcrap. Glasgow Phillips – who co-wrote with Gallagher – took a strong, modern idea, over-thought it and turned it into a generic ‘90s movie that’ll have you throwing popcorn at the screen. Sometimes simplicity is better. The turgid, unnecessary and deeply stupid complexity of Smiley will leave audiences frowning.