And yet, SMILEY would have you believe that it has some surprising twists and turns. In fact, the crux of the film is that you should be unsure of what is happening from one moment to the next. It aims to be something far more than it’s competition. It just doesn’t succeed.
The film is focused very much on the modern internet-age. Many films have tackled this theme since the net boom of the 1990s. Very few have had anything beyond moderate success and in fact many have been the subject of ridicule within the horror community. However, I cannot recall a film that attempted to integrate the internet some fully into its plotline, to the point of making a pretty valid point about it being an inexorable part of our 21st century society.
Smiley is an urban legend that has sprouted up on the net, and the film at least has the honesty to admit that it’s a riff on Bloody Mary or Candyman. People who are in internet chat rooms, particularly on the random Chat Roulette-style forum featured in this film, summon Smiley just as we summon other boogeymen by staring into the mirror. The person on one end types in “I did it for the lulz” three times, and if they can picture it in their mind, a killer with a stitched-up smiley face will appear behind the other person and kill them right there on the webcam.
Ashley (Caitlin Gerard) is a college freshman getting over a family tragedy. The internet has helped her reach out and meet people, like her new roommate Proxy (Melanie Papalia) and her friends in the cyber community. She and Proxy come across Smiley when they jokingly go through the ritual on a web chat, killing the pervert at the other end. Ashley in turn finds it hard to deal with the guilt of taking another person’s life and keeping it secret. Worse yet, she is now convinced that Smiley is after her.
SMILEY tackles two tropes at once. At times, it seems as if director Michael J. Gallagher saw the 1998 film URBAN LEGEND, acknowledged how horrible it was and resolved to do a better job. He does do better in fact, even if it still isn’t quite enough. He notes that many of what we call these “urban legends” are the way modern myths and legends are born. His film questions whether the power of myth could be enough to make the impossible possible. But Gallagher acknowledges that urban legends have evolved past deadly Pop Rocks and the fate of Mikey from the Life Cereal ads. In the fourteen years since Alicia Witt ran screaming from a pop culture-obsessed killer, the urban legend has become synonymous with the technology we use every day.
Twenty years ago, the people in SMILEY would have been called “cyberpunks,” and would have been a very small, very dedicated community within the cyberspace. Now, they are practically the mainstream. Even the young people who aren’t involved in the various internet activities detailed in this film are more familiar with them than the generations who came before. Indeed, the internet has informed our modern society like nothing that has ever come before it. It is not even accurate to compare the indispensability of the personal computer when talking about the internet. The internet isn’t just on computers anymore. It’s in businesses, shops, on our phones, our televisions and various other appliances. It’s everywhere.
Gallagher, who has experience creating a multitude of internet content, acknowledges the ubiquitous presence of the internet. Unfortunately, he also tends to confuse that with a sense of importance and timelessness that is perhaps overstating it a bit. He thankfully explores what happens when you have a younger generation who, just as every young generation before them, has not fully grasped the lasting consequences of their actions, and combine that with a medium which could be a veritable HELLRAISER puzzle box of pleasure or pain, depending on what you do with it. But to suggest as he does that the everything that resides within the internet is timeless is rather foolish. Remember Netscape? MySpace? The “Leave Britney Alone” Kid? Where are they now? More importantly, who cares? These things last only as long as our blasé cynicism allows them to.
As I stated earlier, the big shocks in this film really aren’t all that. Anyone with any deductive reasoning whatsoever can probably figure this one out. Of course, this means that the characters within the film must frustratingly be unable to see what’s plain to the outside observer.
And yet, here’s an interesting trick the film pulls off. Despite being incredibly obvious, it also does not hold up to even the flimsiest logic. The script has gaping holes and it’s hard to believe that no one in the production noticed them. The problems start right at the beginning and continue to plague the film throughout its entire running time. It simply doesn’t make sense. It’s a rare thing to combine rote predictability with impossible-to-swallow nonsense and yet it’s something SMILEY accomplishes with aplomb.
It’s not a complete wash however. SMILEY contains two performances that are definitely worth noting. The first is lead actress Gerard. She sympathetically portrays a naïve, psychologically fragile young woman being stalked by insidious forces. She adds a little something extra to the part and creates a more lasting impression than one would expect.
Also in the cast is Roger Bart as a college professor specializing in Ethics and Reason. We drop in on his classes from time to time and his lectures mirror the bent philosophy of the film. Bart is a great actor and I’ve enjoyed seeing him in so many different parts over the years. Whether playing the mincing Carmen Ghia in THE PRODUCERS, a family man with a dark side in HOSTEL PART II or even a surprisingly vulnerable corporate stooge in a guest spot on 30 ROCK, Bart has such a wide range and seems to infuse each part with a unique brand that makes his characters endlessly fascinating. He is definitely the highpoint of SMILEY.
In these days when everyone is taking an express train to Redbox, I like to see low-budget horror get a theatrical release, even if it is limited. I just wish SMILEY was better. Gallagher has given us a potentially poignant entry into the horror genre. He just hasn’t given us an entertaining or coherent one. ★★ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated R for violence, language and drug use
– Running Time: 1hr 35 mins.