Friday, October 12, 2012

Smiley: Chatting Kills

Why would college kids want to hang around in internet chat rooms when they can go out drinking and carousing?  Nonetheless, that is what they do in a new horror movie wearing both its 1980’s nostalgia and a distrust of the digital culture on its sleeve.  An internet boogeyman is preying on online chatters, including perhaps a coed with a history of mental breakdowns, who might become his next victim in Michael J. Gallagher’s Smiley (trailer here), opening today in New York.

Smiley is the online answer to Candyman.  Supposedly, he can be invoked by typing the latest bit of internet crapspeak, “it was all just for lulz,” three times.  He then appears behind your chat partner to slit their throats.  Creepy online trolls are posting and commenting on a raft of dodgy videos supposedly capturing the urban legend at work, but the authorities consider them pranks.

Ashley is introduced to the Smiley phenomenon when her trampy roommate Proxy drags her to an anonymous chat room meet-up kegger.  Still recovering from her mother’s death, Ashley is a bit alarmed by the apparent murders.  The drugs she is slipped do not help much either.  To reassure her, Proxy suggests they call out Smiley in a random chat.  Of course, he duly appears to do what he does.  Wracked with guilt, Ashley fears she has attracted Smiley’s personal attention and might just wind up as one of his next victims, lulz or no lulz.

As dead teenager movies go, Smiley is pretty standard stuff, indiscriminately ripping off scores of previous horror franchises.  However, every now and then it shows a flash of genuine inspiration, even referencing the Anonymous-Hactivist movement in a decidedly unflattering way that would be spoilery to explain. 

Tony Award-winning Roger Bart also adds an intriguing element as Professor Clayton, a faculty burn-out teaching the required “Logic and Ethics” course to the incoming skulls full of mush.  Tellingly though, Clayton offers plenty of instruction in the former, but not much by way of the latter.  A leering logical positivist, he is quite a commentary on contemporary academia, played with genre appropriate flair by Bart.

Not surprisingly, the kids are a rather dull, colorless lot.  To be fair, Caitlin Gerard does a pretty credible job falling to pieces as Ashley, but it is impossible to understand why she hangs with such an obnoxious crowd.  Frustratingly, the always cool Keith David (narrator of Ken Burns’ Jazz) is criminally wasted as the lazy copper who thinks it is all a joke.

It must be freely admitted Smiley ends pretty strong.  Whether it was intended as a searing indictment of the nihilism permeating hipster culture and the intelligentsia, it could certainly be interpreted as such.  That definitely sets it apart from the pack.  It is not exactly what you would call spectacular, but it has moments of something.  For voracious horror fans, Smiley opens today (10/12) in New York at the AMC Empire.