Before We Vanish by Steven Warner Film

Smiley Face Killers | Tim Hunter

Credit: Lionsgate

Smiley Face Killers is a fascinating failure; not a good film, but frequently a compelling one.


Brett Easton Ellis has never written a sympathetic character in his entire career. There are two types of people to be found in an Ellis opus: young, pretty, and vacuous or young, pretty, and harboring personal demons while maintaining an aura of vacuousness. He’s a peculiar choice, then, to pen the new horror flick Smiley Face Killers, a film that focuses not on the titular killers, but instead on one of their potential victims, the young, pretty, and vacuous Jake Graham (Ronen Rubinstein). Ellis has no interest in developing this character beyond the most superficial flourishes: he’s a twenty-something college student who is cut like a Greek God and spends most of the film in various states of undress. He has a willing partner in director Tim Hunter — a long way from his breakout film, 1986’s cult classic River’s Edge — who is far more interested in ogling Rubinstein’s physique than in frightening audience members. Just watch as Jake emerges from the pool, his small black trunks clinging to his lithe, muscular body, the camera slowly panning over every inch. One could be mistaken for thinking this was the latest David DeCoteau flick, a healthy dose of palpable homoeroticism informing every scene. That’s not to say that Jake is lacking a rich interior life: he suffers from unnamed mental issues, has recently stopped taking his meds, and is jealous of his girlfriend’s ex. He also likes to put on shirts even while his body is still slick and glistening from a recent, steamy shower — the kid has layers. 

Sixty minutes of Smiley Face Killers is devoted to the “development” of this character, who at one point repeats the line, “Why are you fucking with me, bro?” three times in the span of ten seconds. Every once in a while, a white van pops up in the background, silently stalking our protagonist, before one of the perpetrators finally moves to the interior of his apartment to get a better look at that ass. The history surrounding this case is actually a fascinating one — yes, this is inspired by actual events, and involves an absolutely insane theory on how the “accidental” drowning of over 150 athletic, college-aged males over the course of 20 years may be linked to a serial killer whose calling card was a spray-painted smiley face. Ellis takes a few liberties here and there, namely by theorizing that the possible culprits were a bunch of Satanists, which is certainly one avenue to pursue. What makes Smiley Face Killers such a fascinating failure, though, is just how much the film gets right. DP Michael Marius Pessah favors soft, ambient light in his nighttime scenes, all street lamps and headlights, that reminds of Michael Mann’s Collateral more than it has any right to; it’s highly effective in creating a very specific mood of discomfort and encroaching fear. The synth score by Kristen Gundred is also a neat little nod to the ‘80s-esque, devil-worshipping cultists at the heart of the film, and Crispin Glover even pops up as one of the trio of killers, sporting a bald head and a bit of discount Lon Chaney make-up. He doesn’t have much to do and is clearly only around as a personal favor to director Hunter, but his gonzo presence is always an attention-getter, to say the least. Meanwhile, for gorehounds unimpressed by the film’s more nuanced efforts, the killings are especially graphic, although it unfortunately takes an hour before Hunter and company get to the “good stuff.” It’s a legitimate bummer, then, that viewers must suffer through so much bad stuff in the meantime. The dialogue and acting are brutal in all the wrong ways, although Rubenstein gets credit for having the balls to spend the last third of the movie entirely naked, save for a wrapping of electrical tape covering his bits. Why, you ask? Well… [Turns to look at Ellis, who lights a Marlboro Red and cackles, refusing to break eye contact.] Smiley Face Killers isn’t good per se, and there’s a whole lot of mess to wade through, but it’s never less than a compelling watch, if not always for the reasons intended.


Published as part of Before We Vanish | December 2020 — Part 1.

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