Internet Generation is Terrorized in Clichéd ‘Smiley’
CHICAGO – What if all the evil on the internet manifested itself into a supernatural being with the power to kill a la Candyman? Such is the relatively clever premise of “Smiley,” opening in limited release this week. It’s a modest, low-budget horror movie with some effective ideas and an engaging lead performance but it clutters itself down with too much dialogue about its title character and the very concept of evil being potentially brought to physical life. Every time that it feels like “Smiley” could become something interesting, it falls back into clichés. It’s a film about the next generation of horror villains that owes too much to the older ones.
The premise has a solid hook. People who spend way too much time online form a community around a Chatroulette service. Anonymity is a requirement for these people even though they get together and party. Videos start to circulate of members being killed by a masked figure. Are they real? The urban legend goes that if you type “I did it for the lulz” three times into the chat window, Smiley will appear behind whomever you are chatting with and gut them. It’s Candyman for the LOL generation.
Photo credit: Fever Productions
We have an entire generation now of teenagers who look skeptically at everything they see online. With so many fake videos out there, what’s real? Kids see a video of a murder online and think it’s fake. What if it’s not? It’s a clever idea—how a generation that doesn’t believe anything could be easily terrorized because they’ll laugh at the killer until he stabs them in the face. Sadly, the potential of this concept is weighed down by cliché and tonal inconsistency. When the killing gets intense in “Smiley,” the film threatens to have a clever angle (with funny lines like “I thought college was going to be fun”) but it’s not long before a damsel in distress is being stalked with jump cuts, music cues, and all that we’ve come to expect from a movie like “Smiley.” And when the movie’s not clichéd, it’s way too talky. There are extended scenes of discussion about evil, evolution, the internet, and how they could all come together to bring a movie monster to life. Don’t get me started on the dream sequences.
Photo credit: Fever Productions
It helps significantly that the cast of “Smiley” includes a few stand-outs. Roger Bart has a memorable supporting role as a teacher whose increasing apathy at a generation who doesn’t give a shit makes him a prime suspect if indeed Smiley is an actual person. Internet sensation Shane Dawson works well in another red herring role as an outsider who seems friendly but screams “likely killer” to anyone who knows their horror. But the movie works because of the committed, charismatic performance from Caitlin Gerard. She’s in nearly every scene in the film and she commits fully to what is sometimes a ridiculous script. She’s believable and likable — two essential characteristics for a scream queen.
It’s too bad her work is so often wasted, especially in the mid-section of the movie when she’s just tormented by “Smiley.” Her character is inconsistent but it feels like it’s because the movie never settles on who she should be. One senses that the film might have been trippier at some point to perhaps suggest that our heroine is truly going insane. A young college student with recent tragedy in her life gone crazy by the selfishness and general lunacy of a generation addicted to the internet – that would be an interesting movie. Sadly, “Smiley” is only slightly that movie as a trick and you have to look really hard past the straight-to-DVD horror flick clichés to see it. Like so much on the internet, what works is buried by what does not.