Director: Michael Gallagher
Cast: Caitlin Gerard, Melanie Papalia, Shane Dawson, Andrew James Allen, Roger Bart, Toby Turner, Nikki Limo and Keith David
Plot: A group of students fear that they are being targeted by a viral video that sends a serial killer after you, called Smiley.
Occasionally an Indie film that is knocking about online but forgotten due to the assumption that it won’t be any good, can surprise you. Smiley is an independent horror film, which takes the popular horror movie story of Bloody Mary (or the Ring or Candyman for those unfamiliar with the fairy tale about a killer that comes after you when you say a token phrase three times into the mirror), and updates it to the generation of kids obsessed with viral videos and the anonymity of the internet. While it never escapes the fact it has a daft plot and the horror side of things are pleasantly generic, rather than ground-breaking levels of excellence, it is well directed and well acted, making it far from a painfully disappointing watch.
This is mainly because Smiley seems to be not just making a horror film about some serial killer and a bunch of dumb teenagers, but beginning a debate on morality and if anonymity cancels out evil. This film allegedly got a lot of abuse from the likes of 4chan, Anonymous and Chatroulette, because the film openly mimics those groups to base its story in current events (I say allegedly, because those stories smell like a clever marketing ploy to me). The film opens with people using a site like Chatroulette, where users can skip through a random conversation generator, connecting with random people all over the world. There is a small debate about the safety of such a site, which leads to the film’s main plot. Users can sentence a random person on the computer screen to death by typing ‘I did it for the Lulz’ three times and sending a killer directly into their room, a mysterious entity with his eyes sewn shut and his carved into a grotesque smile (Smiley is a visually creepy creation). The group of teenagers in this film are more than content to kill from their safety of their living room (they are humanised by the fact that they are sure that the whole thing is nothing more than a viral prank), making them absent villains, casually malicious, without ever realising that they are the bad guys of the movie. At the centre of the story, nerdy student Ashley finds herself in the wrong crowd, said teenagers, and accidentally unleashes the killer on an unsuspecting guy on the internet. As she questions her own morality, old psychological issues rear their ugly head, causing her to believe that she is the next victim. The debate of ‘why people do what they do’ and the essence of evil is dissected throughout the film, helped along by the fact Ashley is a philosophy student, giving us several lectures from Roger Bart, in a superb side role, as the edgy lecturer whose views on life make Smiley a little more three-dimensional than most of this film’s competition. It also helps make Caitlin Gerard’s lead heroine a very interesting figure, as she goes down the staple of a downwards spiral, as her fears get more and more confirmed along the way.
The story will either make or break it. It starts off as weak as you fear it would, the idea that teenagers on the internet are happy to kill each other off and laugh it off the next day. A lot of Ashley’s friends are so horrible, you wonder why she doesn’t run a mile before getting dragged into this mess. Smiley struggles that it is a bit of a daft premise and as a result, a lot of the side characters aren’t easy to connect with. Only Ashley is worth wanting to survive. However, when the movie has time to push through the hard to believe stuff, it finds steam in the tense build-up. For one, there is a burning mystery into what Smiley actually is. Is he really there, a supernatural presence like Bloody Mary or Freddy Krueger? Is it all in Ashley’s head? At one point, the film even makes a pretty good explanation that the internet is actually growing into a Skynet being that is being fuelled by the casual hate online. And if none of those theories float your boat, it has to be one of the characters, dressing up and killing everyone? But how are they transporting themselves into the rooms of victims all over the world? And who would do it? Shane Dawson’s nice guy love interest? Roger Bart’s lecturer who likes to get into people’s heads for harmless fun? Or malicious cruelty? In trying to figure out where the film is going, you get wrapped up in the mystery and forget about the silly start of the film. It actually becomes quite gripping, unusual for a low budget teen horror. On the other hand, that makes Smiley the kind of film that hangs on the twist. It opens up some plot holes, that’s for sure, but it also helps solidify the movie’s debate about internet morality. It will definitely wind some people up, but is just clever enough, and definitely unpredictable enough, to earn respect. But it does give into temptation for the final scare of the movie, which is a sad piece of over-indulgence. It shows Smiley for what it really is: a decent enough horror but still trapped in the genre’s usual pitfalls.
Final Verdict: Great acting and direction helps Smiley more than you might imagine, although it still is good, rather than unmissable.