Directed by: Tim Hunter
Notable cast: Ronen Rubinstein, Mia Serafino, Amadeus Serafini, Crispin Glover
From the nineties through the early aughts there were a series of drownings of young men throughout the Midwest, and upon noticing a pattern of smiley face graffiti accompanying these tragic deaths, a few law enforcement experts, including two detectives, put forward a theory that these were serial murders. This has been shot down and ridiculed by the crime-fighting community writ large, but the basic idea of this inspired this thriller from director Tim Hunter and the mind of writer Bret Easton Ellis (Less Than Zero, American Psycho). If you’re familiar with Ellis’ work, broadly, a good portion of this movie feels very in line with his vision of the world. Young, upper-middle-class men and their many social struggles. His characters are, almost by definition, hard to relate to, which makes for a tough sell in what is ostensibly a slasher movie or, at the very least, a film styled as one.
This is, off-the-top, an exploration of mental illness and slasher film concepts through the lens of the upper middle, if not higher, class. It’s a Brett Easton Ellis script, and accordingly, it certainly feels like one. I certainly wouldn’t have been surprised to see the kids from Less Than Zero wandering around the background, for instance, to paint the setting. We meet college student Jake, a successful, young soccer-playing college student, being goaded into a party by his best friend. Jake has apparently been off of his meds and isolating himself, and his girlfriend starts to become concerned with his erratic behavior, which begins to include accusing her of seeing her ex behind his back. This is largely the central conflict of the movie, for despite being advertised as a slasher, the horror elements of Smiley Face Killers are largely relegated to the third act unless you find well to do kids suffering self-imposed melodrama frightening. While getting ready for the party, Jake discovers a map in his room marked with what appears to be smiley faces all up and down it. He begins fearing that he’s being stalked, though with his acting so manic recently, everyone he talks to believes it just in his head.
He begins convincing himself that his girlfriend’s ex is messing with him and starts confronting everyone that Jake even thinks maybe in on it. As that is happening, we see masked figures coming into Jake’s room messing with stuff, and realize he isn’t as crazy as everyone is treating him. This does ultimately lead to a fairly active third act with some middling to decent violent gore effects, though it’s really quite difficult to express the amount of whiplash, this causes in the film, as it mostly plays out like a collegiate drama. Jake isn’t an especially compelling or interesting character and the acting overall has a stunted feeling. Ellis’ words and plot make Smiley Face Killers definitely feel like a film based on his works, but without the stunning cast and directorial flair of an American Psycho (the Mary Harron adaptation that everyone but Ellis himself loves) this whole film feels un-energetic and downright flat. The only actor putting any real effort into this film seems to be the criminally underutilized, and deeply unrecognizable, Crispin Glover who is really doing his best and puts in a typically odd, off-putting performance. In this instance, I am using “off-putting” as a compliment, and something that Glover has leveraged well in many roles, even in deeply forgettable movies (Willard remake, anyone?)… and I think that Smiley Faced Killers is well-positioned to fall into exactly that.
There is nothing technically wrong with Smiley Faced Killers… it’s reasonably well shot, well-edited, and the music is good to excellent. What the film lacks is any kind of flair or style, and the whole thing comes off like a 90s TV movie.
It’s a movie that is hard to say is worth even the fiscal or chronological investment, and especially not at a full rental price, but if you’re a BEE or Glover fan, it’s most certainly not the worst movie I saw in 2020 either. Just dull, lifeless and disappointing if your expectations, like mine, are based on it being Ellis writing another horror narrative.