By-the-numbers slasher pic “Smiley” starts by borrowing the key concept of “Candyman,” ends with a denouement heavily indebted to “Scream,” and stuffs its middle with a dismayingly high quotient of lazy false scares. Some laughable dialogue, uneven performances and logic gaps big enough to drive a truck through complete this uninspired “urban legend” horror-thriller set in a milieu of college students and naughty online chatrooms. First feature for helmer/co-scenarist Michael Gallagher looks to scare up minor returns when it opens on 28 AMC screens Oct. 12, raising awareness toward better results in VOD.
Substituting laptops for “Candyman’s” mirrors, “Smiley” here refers to a grotesque, mythic figure with sewn-shut eyes and a knife-exaggerated grin who supposedly materializes when users of a particular website (“Hide and Go Chat”) type a certain message three times. At which point, the stranger they’ve been chatting or sexting with gets a surprise visitor and a most unpleasant death.
Just informed of this phenomenon is college newbie Ashley (Caitlin Gerard), a naive local girl who seems underprepared for independent life, having suffered some recent anxiety crisis. Nonetheless, she’s thrown into campus social life by housemate Proxy (Melanie Papalia), a worldly party girl who wastes little time yanking Ashley to a wild-side “anonymous” shindig where, as on the fatal website, invitees are strangers. There they meet Zane (Andrew James Allen), snarky ringleader of a bunch of prank-inclined mean boys, and picked-on nice guy Binder (Shane Dawson), who sparks with Ashley.
Meanwhile, the probably-fictional-but-maybe-not Smiley continues to waste cybertourists. Soon Ashley is seemingly being stalked by Mr. S in her waking hours and nightmares, which she now has trouble separating. She finally goes to the police, but they (or rather vet thesp Keith David) think she’s being pranked, particularly as no bodies have been discovered and the chatroom videos are suddenly nowhere to be found. “How can you erase everything over the whole Internet?” Ashley cries. “You can’t … if you’re human,” Proxy intones, in one of numerous tin-eared script passages.
Despite the pic’s R rating, the mayhem here is neither especially gory nor suspenseful, with not much happening for a long stretch beyond myriad false-alarm moments until the last 10 minutes or so. Further padding is provided by Professor Clayton (Roger Bart), whose class on reason and ethics allows pretentious exchanges on the nature of evil, etc. Bart tries to inject some sly humor, but despite helmer Gallagher’s prior credits in sketch comedy and the presence of some YouTube comedy ministars (Dawson, Toby Turner), most of “Smiley’s” laughs are of the unintentional variety.
Packaging is adequate, though limited locations sometimes underline budgetary limits.