Can a mediocre horror film be redeemed with a killer ending? Smiley, out Feb. 12 on DVD, hardly distinguishes itself from the rest of its blood 'n guts kin.
Just wait. The film's final moments offer a cynical take on our desensitized Web culture that makes the horrors that come before it feel almost ... quaint.
An emotionally fragile co-ed named Ashley (Caitlin Gerard) has barely settled in on campus when she witnesses a blood-curdling video. A masked killer slaughters a person in a video chat room, and she later learns it's part of an urban legend that seems too real to be a gag.
When someone types the phrase, "I did it for the lulz" three times in a chat room setting a killer named Smiley appears, knife in hand.
No, the folks behind Candyman and Beetlejuice don't get a residual for the triple play ripoff.
Ashely and her new gal pal (Melanie Papalia) decide to type the "lulz" line themselves in a chat room one night just to see what happens. Beats keeping drunken frat boys at bay. Sure enough, Smiley appears behind the person they're chatting with and slices him into oblivion.
Should they tell someone what happened? Would anyone believe them? Ashley isn't the most reliable witness given her fractured family history, something we learn when savvy character actor Keith David makes a brief, bright appearance as a local cop.
In between the standard horror movie tropes, from obnoxious teens we wouldn't mind seeing meet Smiley to party scenes with random acts of cruelty, we sit in on Ashley's ethics lessons. Her professor (Roger Bart, classing up the joint) teaches about morality in society, but catch him in his office and he sounds like a doom and gloom environmentalist bemoaning how humans gobble up the earth's resources.
Bart's subplot offers a respite from both the standard gore and a crush of fake scares. You'd eagerly unFriend the folks in this movie if they kept sneaking up on you as they do with Ashley.
Still, the film has its hooks in us. Just what is Smiley? Is he a figment of a frazzled co-ed's imagination or a force far too powerful for anyone to stop?
There's nothing unusual about Smiley save his mask. But oh, that mask. It's brilliantly conceived, reminding us horror movies can creep us out without a big budget.
Smiley could still use a smarter script, more endearing characters and a boycott of faux scare tics. The film wraps in a smart, unsettling fashion that quietly redeems some of those flaws. Just don't even think of a Smiley 2. Not even for the lulz.
The DVD extras include a gag reel, blood-soaked outtakes and a commentary track featuring co-writer/director Michael Gallagher, co-star Shane Dawson and Bart.