Thirty minutes into Michael Gallagher’s “Smiley,” we were ready to turn off the film, but in the interest of reviewing the movie, we persisted. It was an arduous journey, a deceptively tolerable horror flick that briefly flirts with an interesting idea or two and then casts them aside for cheap scares, with leaden philosophical discussions interspersed throughout in an attempt to elevate the trappings of the film. We soldiered on, but just remember, dear reader, that you have the option of permanently delaying the watching of this film.
Enter Ashley (Caitlin Gerard), our moral center/adventurous heroine, whose good-girl image can be selectively shed because she is now attending college, where we (and she) are repeatedly told you can do whatever you want. Our ingénue is soon on a crash course with 4chan culture, specifically the phrase “I did it for the lulz,” which, when repeated three times in a Chatroulette-esque setting, calls on the killer known as Smiley, who looks like someone carved a Glasgow smile on a potato. When Ashley and spunky supporting actress Proxy (Melanie Papalia) unwittingly cause Smiley to take a life, the former sets off on an investigation of just what Smiley is (Shane Dawson’s haplessly floppy-haired and friend-zoned Binder offers this nugget of wisdom: “All the evil around the internet found one place to hide”) and more importantly, whether he’s real. Ashley’s fragile emotional and mental state necessarily complicates matters as she begins to doubt herself and sink deeper into paranoia.
“Smiley” poses a compelling question – in the age where everything is scrutinized and people can easily find all nature of cheap thrills online, what is real? Can the earnest belief that an evil exists manifest that thing into nature? Even more compelling, is the Smiley the next evolutionary step and humanity simply the meaty middle man? It’s captivating material for a horror film, but largely left sadly untouched here – at best, we get some borderline inane philosophizing from a character that touts his area of interest as “the intersection of the strange and the retarded.” Roger Bart, solidly slumming it as an Ethics & Reason professor, explains away whatever subtleties the film has to offer. This is also the first film featuring what we will coin herein as jock-nerds, clearly jocky stand-ins masquerading as nerds while mocking another nerd by shouting “pedobear” at him.
It’s worth saying that the final moments of “Smiley” are a grade above the by-the-numbers film that unfolded prior, but it’s too little too late. Since we never truly invest in the under-developed Ashley, her ultimate fight for survival is at best a well-worn cliche, while the gravitas stirred up by the ending is minor yet still feels unearned. There’s a pervasive air of feigned complexity that culminates in an ironic old-timey song placed over the credits that might make you question if “Smiley” has something more on its mind, but only for a moment.
It pays to clear the air here – the film is the work of a filmmaker who is decidedly not inept. The 23-year-old director (who also has a YouTube channel), making his debut feature here, has a well-formed idea of how to set up tension and even an effective jump scare or three. Nothing in “Smiley” looks amateurish, but the screenplay betrays the work of a writer who is enamored with an idea but unwilling to develop it beyond a bare minimum. The fact that the visuals of Smiley we catch in the film are largely laughable compared to the memorably creepy image flaunted in the press materials hurts the movie more than you’d think.
The best B-movies can tap into and capture the pulse of a culture, and while it’s easy to appreciate Gallagher tackling the fruitful subject of Internet urban legends via clueless killers-soon-to-be victims, it’s a scratch on the surface, a first step. Maybe he’s just looking to get the ball rolling, but “Smiley” is likely to be buried in the bargain bin. [C-]