For the first hour or so of Smiley, I was anxious to review it, as I truly believed it was a parody cleverly masquerading as an underachieving teen slasher film. But then came the final thirty minutes, at which point those involved made the dreaded mistake of taking the material seriously, which is to say that it grew darker on atmospheric and subtextual levels. All led to a rather atrocious ending that relied on not one but two twists. Apart from its unnecessary display of cruelty and betrayal, the first twist was hopelessly confusing and monumentally implausible; it’s the kind of revelation that forces you to think back on the entire movie, only for you to determine that, given what you’ve seen, it would be physically, rationally, and narratively impossible. The second twist is just typical horror movie overkill – a way to get one more scream out of the audience.
First, a little expository information. The plot revolves around an urban legend, one that may or may not have been made up just for this movie. I never bothered to actually look into it, since I don’t believe it matters in the slightest. Anyway, it’s said that, if you log onto an internet video chat room and IM the sentence, “I did it for the lulz,” three times to the person you’re chatting with, that person will immediately be hacked to death by a supernatural serial killer named Smiley, who magically materializes. Smiley, as we repeatedly see throughout the film, has a grotesquely disfigured face, the real mouth and eyes replaced by stitched slash marks resembling an oversized smile and eye slits. It’s also stated that he can only appear if you can actually envision the killing happening. It’s eventually speculated that, after killing the person at the other end of the chat line, his next target is the person who typed the three IMs.
Now, let us first examine that opening hour, which was so hilariously clichéd that I was firmly convinced it was intended to be that way. We meet a college freshman named Ashley (Caitlin Gerard), whose bookish, high strung, hopelessly naïve, a skittish goody two-shoes, and always the last to understand a joke she has just been told. She moves into a house and becomes roommates with Proxy (Melanie Papalia), a rebellious and sarcastic party girl with a vague punk-rock getup. Within just ten minutes of screen time, Proxy takes Ashley to her first party, where she has her first encounters with alcohol and pot. Also attending the party are a group of rude, beer-chugging boys. The leader, Zane (Andrew James Allen) is a smooth-talking pervert who’s interested in all things “strange and retarded.” They inevitably start picking on the nerdy nice guy, Binder (Shane Dawson), which means, of course, that Ashley will develop feelings for him.
For fun, the boys at the party log onto an anonymous chat room, randomly choose a video feed, and IM the triplicate incantation to the other person. Although they see the person getting stabbed to death by Smiley, no one believes it’s real, and they all laugh. All, that is, except Ashley. Is it possible that Smiley isn’t some internet hoax but an authentic evil being? After logging onto the same chat room, IMing the same incantation to someone somewhere, and watching Smiley do his dirty work, she begins to fear that she may be responsible for murder. It’s at this point that two things happen: (1) Ashley begins having vivid nightmares of Smiley attacking her; (2) we learn that she has a history of mental problems spurred by the suicide of her mother. She begins seeing a school psychiatrist and is soon prescribed both an anti anxiety medication and a tranquilizer.
Although Ashley is undoubtedly taking more than one class, the only one we see her attend is Ethics and Reason. At first, this aspect of the plot plays as if it were just another silly cliché, which was the right approach; we meet the teacher, Professor Clayton (Roger Bart), who babbles philosophically, and a motley crew of students who clearly couldn’t care less about what he’s trying to teach them. But the further the film goes, the more ominous and fatalistic the lectures become; eventually, they cease to be fun plot devices and become deadly serious sermons that actually tie into the film’s message, whatever that happens to be. Clayton’s intellectual cynicism soon gives way to depressing nihilism, which he exudes with a frightening intensity wholly inappropriate for this story.
Because I was under the impression that the film was a veiled spoof for the first hour, I actually enjoyed the performances, most of which wouldn’t qualify the actors for a high school production. Gerard was especially amusing; her character seemed so innocent and giggly, so out of touch, so bound by the exaggerated notions of a horror-movie heroine. But as the film turned darker and the giggles were replaced by screams and hysterical sobs, I began to distance myself. It didn’t take long before I finally became aware of how amateurish she and everyone else was. Not even an appearance by Keith David as a jaded police detective could undo the damage; he seemed to be just as bewildered by his casting as everyone else. Smiley was so very nearly a decent parody that part of me regrets giving it a negative review. Granted, it’s a very small part of me.