MOVIE REVIEW OF ”SMILEY FACE KILLERS”

Nothing about “River’s Edge” director Tim Hunter’s serial killer saga “Smiley Face Killers” (*** OUT OF ****) is funny. Writer & producer Bret Easton Ellis, best known for his nihilistic novel “American Psycho” and the Christian Bale film version, wrote the “Smiley Face Killers” screenplay inspired by the eponymous urban myth.

Reportedly, authorities discovered about 150 or more jocks drowned between 1997 and 2010, and their bodies washed up near places near smiley face graffiti symbols. Law enforcement made no arrests, however, because the deaths were ruled accidental.

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Nevertheless, two retired N.Y.P.D. detectives and a criminal justice professor & gang expert contend serial killers committed these murders. Actually, Ellis penned his script 10 years ago, but it took Hollywood another decade to make it. The unsavory subject matter attracted Ellis because he craves horror movies.

In an interview, Ellis said, “Something about the aesthetic – young, handsome, athletic men who are in college are suddenly drowning, or people haven’t noticed that they’re suddenly drowning, along the western seaboard of the California coast. I wanted to do a variation on the myth. I didn’t want to do the myth itself because no one knows what happened or if it’s even true.

But, the idea of it and making it more of a horror film, and gorier and having a number of kills in it spoke to me.”

If you think “Smiley Face Killers” amounts to just another standard-issue slasher saga, prepare yourself for a rude surprise. The first two-thirds of this chiller foreshadow the ghastly final third. Initially, it unfolds as a soap opera about a depressed twentysomething athlete who fears his girlfriend may dump him for her ex-boyfriend. Meanwhile, bizarre text messages spam our protagonist’s phone with allusions to strange aquatic gods.

During the last thirty minutes, horror erupts in a crescendo of blood, violence and gore galore. The phantom-like villains are the sketchiest part of this literate nail-biter.

Hunky young stud Jake Graham (Ronen Rubinstein of “No Escape”) plays on the university soccer team. He cycles everywhere on his bike, but he suffers from bouts of depression. His relationship with his girlfriend Keren (Mia Serafino of “Zeroville”) becomes complicated, and he ignores her pleas to resume his meds.

Gradually, Jake obsesses over his paranoia and accuses Keren’s ex-boyfriend Rob (newcomer Cody Simpson) of tampering with his laptop. Little does Jake realize that two stealthy stalkers in a pale white Ford Econoline van have been conducting 24/7 surveillance on him.

They’re circling him as their next prey. They tail Jake around town and lurk on the periphery without attracting his attention. Eventually, they sneak into the rental house Jake splits with an older doctoral student. The bewildered grad student suspects Jake has gone gaga.

He finds water standing in all the sinks and bathtubs. No sooner has he drained them than he finds these receptacles replenished! When he least expects a prowler, one surprises him and caves in his skull with a hammer. Ironically, blinded by his own woes, Jake never noticed droplets of his roommate’s blood on the hallway floor.

Finally, these creepy cultists cruise up in their van alongside Jake on a desolate street after dark. Shuttling the side panel door open, they surprise our protagonist and haul him into the van. Later, Jake manages to escape and sprints around virtually naked until he spots a neon-bright, self-service gas station.

The owner, who hates college kids and their pranks, refuses to heed Jake’s warnings. A hooded man marches inside and shoots the owner without a blink and then strikes Jake unconscious with his gun. While this hood carries Jake’s inert body on his shoulder back to the van, a Mercedes sedan with four college kids pulls in for gas.

They find the blood-splattered owner but fare no better. The hooded felon brandishes a hatchet and slaughters the stunned passengers. By the time the driver careens out of the gas station, he is driving a hearse. Soon, the white Ford van forces him off the road. The driver struggles futilely to crank his stalled Mercedes. Quietly, a hooded gunman approaches him. The whimpering driver begs for mercy but gets a bullet.

Director Tim Hunter’s approach to the subject matter is subtle and sophisticated. He stages Jake’s torture in the van and the murders with straightforward but chilling detachment. Basically, horror movies are action & adventure epics turned upside down, with macabre endings that reward evil.

During the first hour of “Smiley Face Killers,” Hunter orchestrates everything so that an inconspicuous Ford appears in each scene without Jake paying any attention to it. Later, when he showers, these cloaked intruders enter Jake’s house and plant an incriminating California map on his bed with smiley face emblems along the coast. The map baffles Jake.

Police remind us always to be vigilant. Sadly, our protagonist is so preoccupied with his own paranoia about Keren and Rob that he doesn’t realize he is being groomed for the grave. Clever as these cloaked miscreants are, they remain hopelessly enigmatic in their dark ominous robes. Indeed, we catch only glimpses of actor Crispin Glover in scar-tissue make-up. Hunter and Ellis deprive them of any motives.

We never see them when they aren’t stalking their prey. We’re allowed to marvel at their stealth and secrecy, but we never learn what fuels their white-on-white crime. Instead, the filmmakers stun us with flashes of shocking violence, while we hope their victims will escape and expose them.

Unfortunately, poor Jake has isolated himself so utterly from Keren and his soccer teammates that they cannot help him. Although he starts back on his meds, he doesn’t do it soon enough to make a difference.

Scenarist Bret Easton Ellis has shifted the murders from the Midwest to California. Instead of dumping bodies in rivers and lakes, these killers abandon them on the beaches. As the film closes, these wicked wrongdoers have spotted their next brawny jock. “Smiley Face Killers” leaves us with little to laugh about but something to dread.

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