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Review: ‘Smiley’

Torry Pines Grad Debuts His New Horror Feature

Above: "Smiley" pays a visit.

Michael Gallagher graduated from Torrey Pines High School and his first feature film, "Smiley" (opening October 12 at AMC Mission Valley Theaters) debuts this week after generating some buzz on the Internet.

"Smiley" introduces an urban legend to film audiences, one that's Internet based. Using the Internet is not new in horror. The Internet figured prominently and provocatively in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Kairo" (remade in the U.S. as "Pulse") and less effectively in films like "FearDotCom," "Untraceable," and "Cry Wolf." Chat rooms seem to be a popular Internet item to incorporate into horror since it can allow for a new kind of anonymous and potentially dangerous interaction that genre directors can tap into.

In "Smiley," Ashley (Caitlin Gerard) is recovering from depression and the recent suicide of her mother. She also about to start college and move out of her dad's place, so she's coping with a lot of changes. Then she learns about the urban legend of Smiley, a deranged serial killer that can be summoned through the Internet on an anonymous chat site where you simply have to type in "I did it for the lulz" 3 times and truly wish that the person receiving your chat will be killed and Smiley will oblige.

The film serves up some gore and creates a great look for its demented killer. Smiley wears a mask that recalls David Cronenberg's killer's mask in "Nightbreed" but beneath the mask is a creepily stitched face with a big bloody grin. Smiley then abruptly appears when summoned to slash his victims while they are in the midst of their online chats.

Visually, Gallagher eschews the current fad of found footage, shakycam, and fast cuts and goes instead for something more classically shot. It's a nice change of pace that gets some decent jump scares as Smiley likes to surprise his victims. Gallagher has a nice sense of building tension through editing and shot set ups. It's also nice to see him attempt an actual discussion about evil, human nature, and the anonymity of the Internet. He doesn't quite pull off the smart horror but I applaud his efforts to try. There are occasional hints of the "Scream"-esque jokiness but in this case it kind of works in light of how events resolve themselves. I refuse to reveal any spoilers that might ruin the fun, so all I will say is that the "evil" that lurks in this film is actually quite disturbing but because the reveal comes at the very end, I'm not sure if the film has something serious to say about this or if it's all merely a gimmick to deliver a twist ending. But I wish Gallagher had resisted that final post ending punch line that has become such a horror cliché.

The acting by the lead actress is weak and Gerard seems like she's escaped from some cheery TV sitcom. Some of the supporting cast, especially Andrew James Allen as a smarmy college student and Roger Bart as a jaded professor, do lift the film. But overall the acting may be the weakest link in the film.

"Smiley" (rated R for drug content, language, and some sexual material) is a promising first effect by Gallagher. It's nice to see that Gallagher may be trying to tap into something that will talk specifically to his generation but at the same time he's not willing to cop out to all the current horror trends in making his film. I'm curious to see what he comes up with next. "Smiley" suggests he has the potential to kick it up a notch.

Companion viewing: "The Addiction" (for a college setting where the dark side of human nature is academically discussed), the second to last story in the omnibus anthology "V/H/S," "Kairo," "River's Edge"

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