Smiley Face Killers, is based on the popular but widely ridiculed and debunked theory by New York City detectives Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte, and Dr. Lee Gilbertson, a criminal justice professor and gang expert at St. Cloud State University. It held that several young men found drowned were the work of a serial killer or killers. The alleged link being a drawing of a smiley face somewhere near the scene.
Director Tim Hunter (Tex, River’s Edge) and writer Bret Easton Ellis (The Canyons, and of course, the novels American Psycho and Less Than Zero) have taken this and given us another horror film “based on true events”.
Jake Graham (Ronen Rubinstein, Follow Me, 9-1-1: Lone Star) is a college soccer player. His best friend Gabriel (Amadeus Serafini, Scream: The TV Series) is concerned because he’s been acting “bummed out and super depressed. That might have something to do with the fact he’s stopped seeing his therapist and won’t take his meds. He will however go to parties and do ecstasy. Even more troubling is the fact he’s just not feeling it when making out with his girlfriend Keren (Mia Serafino, The Butterfly Effect 3: Revelations).
Things don’t get any better when Jake becomes convinced he’s being stalked by a white van driven by a Hooded Figure (Crispin Glover, Willard, Back to the Future). There’s been a rash of suspicious drownings, and he’s terrified he’ll be next.
Smiley Face Killers opens in 2016, (it was shot in 2017), with a series of scenes depicting animal murders, random men being kidnapped and bodies washing up on the shore. Not a bad start. But then we get twenty minutes of an entirely different kind of creepy. The camera follows Jake to the gym where he works out shirtless, to the pool, making out with Keren in just tight undies and then naked before and after a shower. It’s like the director has a major obsession with his leading man. Straight women and gay men can at least enjoy this as eye candy. For me, it was just boring.
Even after someone breaks into his house and leaves a map of the murder locations for him to find Smiley Face Killers takes its time getting to the scares. Jake gets a bunch of texts saying “The Water Wants You” and the sink and bathtub at his house keep getting filled with water. Scary right? Finally, at about the hour mark the Hooded Figure shows up again, this time with a hammer and makes his presence felt. But even that fizzles out as we head to an ending that seems designed primarily to show Jake running around naked.
Hunter and Ellis certainly managed to flip the usual formula for showing skin in a horror film, but that’s about all they’ve managed. There’s no real suspense about what’s going on since we know that the killers are real and are stalking him. Maybe if they had left some doubt as to whether Jake’s condition was making him imagine them Smiley Face Killers would have been more interesting.
We eventually do get a few killings but they’re mostly people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time with no connection to Jake. The killings are fairly brutal, as are some torture scenes, but their randomness and some ill-advised CGI “enhancements” rob them of much of their impact.
Maybe I was wrong hoping Bret Easton Ellis could manage to write something worthwhile. But I can’t believe this was directed by the same man who gave us River’s Edge. I’d rather watch Sleepaway Slasher again than this, and that’s more horrifying and depressing than anything in this film.
Lionsgate will release Smiley Face Killers to Digital, On-Demand and DVD/Blu Ray in North America on 8th December and the U.K. from 14th December.