‘The smiley face murders’ exists as a modern urban legend, a way to explain the mysterious drowning deaths of college/university age men. This comes from a multitude cases where near the discovery of the body a smiley face was found in spray paint. Not to explore too in depth, as you can find sources with more info , but the theory has a lot of holes making it an unlikely conspiracy (though maybe that is what the killers want you to believe). Regardless, the urban legend was bound to lead to a film adaptation, which comes via director Tim Hunter and author Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho). Do the two tackle urban horror with pizzazz, or does the film drown in a river of tedium?
WHAT IS IT?
Jack Graham, a young soccer player who has long had struggles with mental health, is looking at possibly relapsing on his own self care. This comes via a strained relationship with his current girlfriend, his decision to come off of his meds and stop going to therapy. However, most troubling Jake is the receiving of messages from an unknown source, cryptic threats and odd symbols. As Jake becomes increasingly paranoid, a group of murderers begin to stalk their pray for a ritualistic killing.
WHAT DID I LIKE ABOUT THE FILM?
Going into this film knowing next to nothing, other than the history of the ‘smiley face murders’, the overall tone of the film came as a pleasant surprise. The film can be very bleak and dark, with a lot of uncomfortable and realistic violence. This is apparent in the opening scene that simulates the murder of livestock and footage of a washed up corpse on shore, an undeniably tense way to kick of a film. Thankfully, the ultraviolence is later used sparingly, finding a nice balance between shock value and narrative.
Smiley Face Killers, also does a wonderful job of building up tension to the eventual confrontation between the protagonist and the killers. Brief glances of hooded figures here and there, and one vicious hammer kill just before the cult makes their first move on Jake. The second half of the film, post abduction, shifts nicely into an adrenaline inducing struggle as the fight for survival claims the lives of many innocent bystanders.
In an impressive feat, the film is actually able to make the much hated horror trope of university student actually likable. Ronen Rubinstein handles the portrayal of mental health struggles admirably, and his own drive for self improvement gives the audience good reason to cheer him on. All around, the performances are well pulled off for a film that looks to create a more serious tone, there is no ‘hamminess’ or ‘ditziness’ that often defines horror productions taking place in a secondary education setting.
Finally, it should be said that Crispin Hellion Glover is one of the best actors and personalities in all of Hollywood, with many reasons to adore the performer . His role in this film, however small, was one of the two reasons I decided to make this a must watch (other being urban legend angle). While he is barely recognizable as the cult leader, seeing him brutally murder someone with a hammer made the film worth admission off my own obsession with modern troubadour.
WHAT DIDN’T I LIKE ABOUT THE FILM?
Smiley Face Killers, while able to capture a defined atmosphere, really struggles to cement a strong identity. The film looks to imbue style in the early half which feels like an attempt to capture a similar narrative flow to the work of filmmakers like Nicholas Winding Refn or the Safdie Brothers. Further reflecting this attempt in a electronic atmospheric score that also fails, making the attempt to establish a ‘cool’ aesthetic fall tragically short.
However, the biggest shortcoming of the production is easily its inability to really add anything to the ‘smiley face murder’ mythos. Are they part of a cult? What is their reason for killing? Why did they target Jake over others they killed for no reason? Why the smiley face left used as a symbol? Sadly, the answer to all those questions is vague at best and entirely unexplored at worst.
Combining the failed attempt at creating a slick aesthetic and the aimless motives of the killers, Smiley Face Killers loses a lot of elements that could have made this a stand-out horror experience.
Smiley Face Killers can be a really fun ride, with some lovely flourishes of stylized ultra-violence. However, a few things in the approach kind of turned me off from fulling embracing the production as is. Would I still recommend it? Certainly, with few good horror films coming out in 2020 this film scratches that itch for new titles to celebrate the love of all things morbid.
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