The Smiley Face Killers (2020) by Nowal Massari

The Smiley Face Killers, a 2020 horror film penned by Bret Easton Ellis (American
Psycho) and directed by Tim Hunter (River’s Edge) seems like a surefire win. And in theory, it is.
The execution, however…well, that’s a different thing entirely.
The movie begins with the violent and brutal slaying of a goat, so if you don’t want to
see violence against an animal, you’ll definitely want to skip the first couple minutes of this
flick. Especially when the scene immediately following the goat killing showcases the
carcasses of multiple animals, including a dog, laid out in a ritualistic manor. In the opening
scenes, text flashes across the screen to inform the viewers that the movie is based on true
events. Which, is technically true. Keith Hunter Jesperson and Robert Lee Yates, known as the
Happy Face Killer and Smiley Face Killer, are in fact real serial killers, but this film focuses on
the Smiley Face Murder theory. This theory was conceived by Dr. Lee Gilbertson, a professor of
criminal justice, and retired NYC detectives Anthony Duarte and Kevin Gannon. The trio
believed that the bodies of multiple young men, found in various bodies of water throughout
the Midwest, weren’t victims of accidental drownings, but potentially the work of 1 or more
serial killers. These deaths span over 20 years, and the smiley face moniker became attached
after police found smiley face graffiti around the sites where the bodies were found.
The film follows 21 year old Jake (Ronen Rubenstein), an athletic yet troubled college
student. We see him stalked by a white van on campus, which eventually follows him home. It’s
brought to our attention that Jake has previously been medicated for an unnamed mental
illness, but he reveals to his girlfriend Keren (Mia Serafino) that he’s stopped taking it. (This will
be contradicted later when he tells her that he’s still taking it.) Jake seems to be slowly
unraveling, and it’s clear that he’s not as well as he’s pretending to be. One of his main points
of contention is Rob (Cody Simpson), who happens to be Keren’s ex. Jake believes that there’s
something between Keren and Rob, and that he’s also responsible for the mysterious texts he’s
been receiving, which include pictures of the slaughtered animals. Spoiler alert: Rob is 100%
not hacking into Jake’s phone.
The deeper into the movie we get, the more it seems that everything going on is a
product of Jake’s shaky mental state and that he may actually be responsible for most of it;
which will come back at the end of the movie. However, the audience knows that this isn’t the
case. We see the ominous hooded figures behind the havoc in Jake’s life, and it’s just a matter
of time before they attack. And when they finally do…hoo boy.
This is definitely a slow (and I do mean SLOW) burner. While there’s not a ton of gore,
there is a lot of it when it happens, and it’s done pretty well. The characters aren’t super
fleshed out, so it’s difficult to truly care what happens to any of them. Even when Jake is
ultimately in peril, you know exactly what’s going to happen to him and the most you find
yourself being able to muster is a half hearted “meh.” The actors do well with the material
given, but I can tell you right now that Crispin Glover was 100% wasted in his role as one of
the mysterious killers. The script feels clunky in a few areas, and there’s definitely a LOT of
random exposition that could’ve been cut in order to make the movie more cohesive as a
whole. It’s not the worst movie, but there was definitely room for improvement. All told, I’d give
it a 3.5 out of 5 teeth.

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