With his shocking 1991 novel American Psycho, author Bret Easton Ellis established himself as the new enfant terrible of the literary world. While he’s more recently undercut that reputation by morphing into the kind of tedious old fart who moans about “being cancelled” (in national newspaper interviews that reach millions of readers), his work can still be transgressive and interesting. The news that he was about to write a slasher film came as a shock to some. However, Ellis is a self-proclaimed lover of low culture and “trash cinema”, so it’s not as unusual a move as some would paint it. So, how does his horror offering Smiley Face Killers hold up?
The film is based loosely on the real-life urban legend that a series of college student drownings were actually the work of a serial killer, due to similar graffiti being found at each scene. Needless to say, it stretches its “based on true events” tagline into realms of complete absurdity.
Jake (Ronen Rubinstein) is a troubled college athlete who has recently decided to come off his medication. His friends are concerned about his wellbeing, and his withdrawal only deepens when a mysterious stranger begins sending threatening texts to him. To add to this, a creepy white van seems to be tailing him, driven by a hooded menace (Crispin Glover), and oppressively ominous synth music is following him wherever he goes. It turns out that Jake has been chosen to be the next victim in a string of ritualistic murders.
The build-up to the action is long and drawn out, and most of the film’s runtime has the disposable quality of a melodramatic teen soap opera. Jake quarrels with his girlfriend Keren (Mia Serafino) while being mistrustful of her ex Rob (Cody Simpson). It’s a bland love triangle with few points and no edge. He spends a lot of time gliding about on his bike in a ruminative mood. Frankly, there is very little here to arrest the attention, and we found ourselves wishing that the mysterious killer would get a bit of a move on.
When he finally does, things shift from a frustrating, meandering pace to a much more intense and kinetic one. The violence is well-executed and some of the sequences are appropriately gory. There are some particularly wince-inducing sequences involving a hammer. However, even the violence often feels lacking in depth. Crispin Glover is creepy but has little screen time and no lines. Although the film hints at some kind of occult aspect or cult activity, this is never really explored in any detail. It may be more visually engaging than the stilted teen romance of the first half, but it isn’t any less shallow.
The film also more or less completely ignores the premise that these events are tied to the real-life (debunked) “Smiley Face murders theory”, which could have been an opportunity for the story to intersect with reality in unsettling ways. As it is, the experience, like Ellis’ most famous literary creation Patrick Bateman, is comprised of a thin veneer of bland mundanity with nothing lurking beneath but pointless violence.
Jake spends most of the movie shirtless and/or wearing some very short shorts. While some reviewers have pointed to this as being a satirical inversion of the male gaze in slasher films, our feeling is that they may be clutching at straws. After all, this is 2020, well beyond the post-Scream age of self-aware slasher films. These days, subverting the expectations of the slasher genre is more or less the new expectation in and of itself. Almost every new slasher must find some way to approach the tropes afresh and find some new angle or some old convention to up-end. After Cabin in The Woods’ near-surgical deconstruction of the entire sub-genre, Jake’s rock-hard abs alone aren’t quite going to cut it any more.
Director Tim Hunter handles the material commendably, but while the production is slick and the film boasts a handful of good kills, it doesn’t entirely make up for an overall lack of substance. Beyond the attachment of a famous name, there is little here to separate Smiley Face Killers from the slew of other straight-to-VOD slashers that bubble to the surface every year.