Written by Richard P. Serin

A shadowy group of well organised serial killers have been abducting and killing high-achieving and popular young men across the Mid-West USA for a period of more than 20 years, staging their murders to look like accidental drownings. Nevertheless, injuries found on many of the bodies – which are all found in, or next to, water, having been washed ashore – suggest that the victims had been bound and tortured before being killed. ‘Smiley Face’ motifs, the sinister calling card of the killers, have been found spray-painted at the various locations from which the victims’ bodies were dumped. Or so goes a decade old conspiracy theory, first posited by retired detectives, Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte, and Dr. Lee Gilbertson (criminal justice professor at St. Cloud University).

There are plenty of websites and documentaries dedicated to the ‘Smiley Face Killings’, and it didn’t take me much searching to conclude that the theory is unlikely to be true (if anything it indicates a desire to make sense of unrelated drink-fuelled accidents, and a reluctance to acknowledge the disturbingly high rate of suicide in young males). This is not to say that the theory doesn’t have the potential to make for a gripping and disturbing film. Written by the author of the excellent American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis, and directed by Tim Hunter, ‘Smiley Face Killers’ sets out to be just that. 

Smiley Face Killers 2020 horror movie review
Bret Easton Ellis Movie Still 2017

The opening scene goes straight for the jugular; literally, if you happen to be a cute looking goat. It’s a promising start. As with many horror films Smiley Face Killers claims to be inspired by true events. Unlike many horror films, it has some justification for doing so. After an initial montage depicting various young men being abducted by unseen assailants in a dodgy looking white van, our focus is directed towards Jake Graham, a college student who is suffering with mental health problems (played by Ronen Rubinstein from Orange is the New Black). And while the film is inspired by an unproven conspiracy theory the story is entirely fictional. A good move in my opinion; to explore such speculative themes with a real-life case would run the risk of being unpleasantly exploitative.

The majority of the film focuses on Jake’s mental health problems and the impact of them on his relationships, most notably with girlfriend Keren, played by Mia Serafino. Rubenstein’s portrayal of depression is impressively realistic. It’s easy to overplay this widespread illness, especially the semi-functional type that many people suffer with, but that doesn’t happen here. There are flashes of emotion but mostly he is kind of just …  flat. He’s going through the motions, nothing more. It’s a kind of pervasive subtleness that many will recognise. Sadly, the first two acts of the film are plagued by a kind of flatness too.

The pacing is extremely slow, even though the performances are mostly good, and the musical score, by Kristin Gundred, is atmospheric and satisfying. The dynamic of Jake and Keren’s relationship is intriguing too. Her exasperation at Jake’s behaviour (sometimes understandable, sometimes not) often clashes with her desire to help. I found both characters relatable, which I suspect may not be the case for everyone. 

Smiley Face Killers 2020 review Brett Easton Ellis

For Rubenstein’s performance to really pay off there needs to be a tangible contrast between his experience and everyone else’s, which there isn’t. In one scene Jake, Keren, and some friends take ecstasy at a beach party. This could have been a great chance to depict Jake’s friends having a blast as he struggles engage, but what we get instead is the most boring gathering I’ve ever seen. I’ve had wilder times drinking with my 80-year-old granny. Jake is keen to leave early, and frankly, I don’t blame him.

Things do pick up in the third act and, while I don’t think it achieves the tension it aims for, I found it entertaining. There’s some decent action, and some wonderfully squidgy gore effects. 

Smiley Face Killers bites off more than it can chew, and doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. There is material here for a compelling exploration of issues surrounding mental health, especially in young males. Disappointingly, Jake’s battle with his mental health ends up being little more than a plot device designed to set up the events of the last act, which admittedly turns out to be the most engaging part. On the one hand, it’s unfortunate that the film goes in the direction it does, but on the other it’s a welcome change of pace. Smiley Face Killers could have either been a thought-provoking thriller or a riotous horror, it just doesn’t manage to be both. 

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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