OCTOBER 11, 2012
It seems every year, perhaps not coincidentally in the Halloween pre-season of September or October, we get a horror film that barely even deserved to be made, let alone given a fairly decent theatrical release. In 2010 it was Chain Letter, last year gave us Creature, and now we have Smiley, which actually reminded me of Chain Letter in a lot of ways, right down to a bit role from Keith David as a cop. But his role is so limited (two scenes, neither of which requires him to even get up from his desk) that it shouldn't even count.
No, the real similarity is that both films involve a cyber-based slasher, and I think this is the final proof we need that this scenario is never going to work. It's not as laughably dated as Chain Letter - this was just shot last year, so we can forgive the filmmakers for thinking that people would still be using Chat Roulette (they call it something else in the movie, but it's the exact same thing except that the characters don't run into nearly as many guys jerking off as you do in reality), but it WILL date poorly; even if the movie was worth watching now, it certainly wouldn't be in five years. That's the problem with modern horror movies - they use "current" technology too much. Used to be that only a clothing style or maybe the soundtrack choices would date a film - now it's the tech that the characters use in every scene, and we as a society are so plugged into it, it's a lot easier to detect when something is either dated or rings false.
And boy oh boy does this one ring false. Even the basic premise is ludicrous - a serial killer who will appear behind the person you're chatting with if you type, I shit you not, "I did it for the lulz" three times. Now, if he's supernatural, like Candyman, then fine - he can teleport wherever the hell he needs to go. But the script keeps him self-contained, and weirder, our stable of would-be victims are a group from a 4chan message board that all happen to go to the same school or at least live nearby, so they can meet up for parties every other night (and yet no one knows anyone's real name or where they live). The movie had a perfect opportunity to have a good excuse for why no one had the ability to simply go check on the supposed victims by spreading them around the country, and yet they choose to strain credibility even further by having them all live within walking distance of one another. Can you imagine if you were in an AOL chatroom in 1998 about Dawson's Creek or whatever and finding out that all of the members were in your hometown? It's roughly that stupid.
Worse, the main character is a complete n00b when it comes to computers and internet traditions, so she needs everything explained to her (us); her roommate goes on and on about memes and "Chocolate Rain" and what not, and our heroine, the person we're supposed to believe in and want to see succeed, spends half of the movie looking confused. There's also a puzzling bit where she pauses to look at a car, as if she had seen it before and it was a sign of trouble, but it's never explained. Honestly, I spent half the movie just trying to get the slightest hold on the person I should be caring about the most.
Another boneheaded decision is to center a major part of the film over our heroine not being sure (more confusion!) if Smiley is really killing folks or if it's just an internet prank. I'm not sure why I see this April Fool's-ian scenario so often - no matter what the outcome is, it prevents the movie from ever being too exciting, because they have to make sure either answer could work. Can't exactly show people being decapitated if it all turns out to be a joke, nor can our heroine even find a dead body until the finale or else she'd have something to give the cops so they know she's not crazy. So what does writer/director Michael Gallagher do to make up for it? Dream sequences! Lots and lots of dream sequences, including the ever popular dream within a dream sequence! That's a great way to win over the horror fans who are already probably pissed about all the off-screen deaths and completely inane plot that requires people to speak like LOLcats every 5 seconds, right? Indeed, the film will apparently have a PG-13 version for this theatrical release (which seems limited to AMC theaters), and it won't take much effort to get it there from this R one (basically, a few F bombs and maybe one brief throat slit).
Oh, and there are a plethora of classroom scenes. Just about every horror movie where the characters still go to school has a scene where the teacher will be talking about a story with coincidental parallels to the movie's plot, and while I usually roll my eyes a bit, they're harmless and occasionally fun (like Scream 2's discussion on the merit of sequels - or the lack thereof). Well, Smiley may be the first film where it almost seems like the slasher scenes are just foreshadowing devices for a movie about an ethics class, as we see at least three classroom scenes plus a few after class discussions between our heroine and the teacher, played by a twitchy Roger Bart (the best thing about the movie, easily). And you'd THINK that all of this would pay off, given the heroine's ethical dilemma about possibly causing someone's death, but nah - the film's final twist and explanation for Smiley's omnipresence negates any of that.
And to be fair, this explanation ALSO covers most of the plot holes that have piled up, but that doesn't make up for the fact that the movie had to be put on a short leash the entire time in order for it to work. A good twist enhances a movie that was already enjoyable - a BAD twist is one that attempts to justify the reason that the movie has sucked up until that point. Then it gives us not one but TWO setups for a sequel (though one is after the credits), because everyone involved with this movie clearly hates us.
Ultimately, it's only a few little random bits that keep this thing from being tossed in the Crap bin, not counting Bart who almost seems to be playing the role of a bored teacher as himself, a good actor who can't believe he's stuck in such a stupid movie. One is the character of Zane, who is a scumbag that believes the best stories strike a balance between "the strange and the retarded" (MORE meta commentary on the film itself!), and carries out a cinematic first: a scene where a guy is simultaneously trying to date rape a girl (it's not shown but it's implied that he gave her a roofie) while also delivering panicked exposition about a murderer who may be after them both. And he's part of a trio of characters who break into an out of nowhere mockery of The Truman Show, which I found quite charming as it's pretty much the last movie I figured would be referenced in this stupid thing (then again, the "Chocolate Rain" shoutout threw me for a loop. I'm surprised they didn't just go all out and name a character Leroy Jenkins).
I also didn't expect some guy to start shouting as the credits began to roll, encouraging us to stay in our seats as he brought out the director and four of the actors who played minor characters in the film (one of whom I couldn't even place). After thanking us for coming, he asked if we had any questions, all of which were kind of dumb like "Do you plan on Smiley 2?", though I did like the guy who asked "How long ago did you shoot the film?". It seemed most of the (very few) people in the crowd knew these folks, and the theater didn't bother turning off the ads that run in between movies, so it was all very awkward and kind of depressing, since there were almost as many people from the movie as there were in the audience. We were then encouraged to help promote the film - if this review counts as promotion, glad I could help!
Long story short, if you're in need of a scary movie this weekend, Sinister should be the one you give your hard-earned money to. This is the sort of thing that would be on the lower end of the quality spectrum for another installment of After Dark Horrorfest, and while I usually champion this sort of independent release, there just isn't much here worth defending. I appreciate the attempt at a sort of morality tale about how the stupid shit people do on the internet can have real world consequences, but it's buried underneath half-baked subplots (her mom's suicide comes to mind), obnoxious dream sequences, and an ending that is the equivalent of, well, internet trolling.
What say you?