Review: ‘Smiley Face Killers,’ starring Ronen Rubinstein, Crispin Glover and Mia Serafino

March 6, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ronen Rubinstein and Mia Serafino in “Smiley Face Killers” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Smiley Face Killers”

Directed by Tim Hunter 

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed California city, the horror flick “Smiley Face Killers” features an all-white cast of characters, most of whom portray middle-class college students, and a few portraying vicious serial killers.

Culture Clash: A young man who’s a soccer player at his university is being stalked by serial killers in a van.

Culture Audience: “Smiley Face Killers” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching bottom-of-the-barrel horror films that are boring and use a misleading gimmick to get people’s attention.

Crispin Glover in “Smiley Face Killers” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

The first thing that people should know about the horrendously dumb “Smiley Face Killers” is that this movie actually has nothing to do with the real-life Smiley Face Killers theory. It’s a theory that’s mentioned in the movie’s prologue: Since 1997, more than 150 young men across U.S. college campuses have drowned under suspicious circumstances. Because symbols of smiley faces were spray-painted at the scenes where many of the bodies were found, numerous people have come to believe that these deaths were caused by a serial killer or serial killers who use the smiley face as their signature.

One of the worst things about “Smiley Face Killers” (and there are many terrible things about this movie) is that it’s just a substandard slasher flick that has nothing to do with mysterious drownings. The people who are killed in the movie are stabbed, shot and/or bludgeoned to death in ways that have been seen before in hundreds of other horror movies. Therefore, the “Smiley Face Killers” filmmakers (including director Tim Hunter and screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis) not only deliberately made this time-wasting film very misleading but they also failed to deliver anything original or suspenseful in the movie.

The movie begins with a gratuitously violent scene of a goat, pig and dog being murdered by an unknown person whom viewers can assume is the story’s main killer. The next scene takes place in Santa Cruz, California, on September 23, 2016. A young man walks to his car in an empty parking lot at night. A white van drives up next to him, he’s kidnapped, and then his dead body is shown discarded outside on some rocks near the California coast.

The next scene takes place in Santa Clarita, California, on March 14, 2017. It’s night and a young man is on a sidewalk and talking on his phone to a female friend as he walks several feet behind some of of his pals. They all look like they’re headed to a party or some other place to hang out together. And then, the same mysterious white van appears, pulls up next to the guy on the phone, and you know the rest.

Next, viewers are introduced to the movie’s protagonist Jake Graham (played by Ronen Rubinstein), an undergraduate student in his junior year at the fictional California University in an unnamed city. (Woodbury University in Burbank, California, was used for the movie’s campus scenes.) Jake is first seen doing laps in the school’s swimming pool. Does this mean that his swimming skills will come in handy at some point in the story? No.

Jake’s main sport at the school is actually soccer. Jake and his teammate/best friend Adam (played by Garrett Coffey) are two of the better players on the university’s soccer team They also like to party. After Jake finishes his swimming exercises, Jake and Adam are seen in an outdoor eating area. Adam asks Jake if he got the “E,” as in Ecstasy.

Jake says yes, but the drug dealer was “quite the weirdo,” and Jake is having second thoughts about doing Ecstasy. He tells Adam: “I don’t know how smart it is taking E on a Friday night when the next morning we have soccer practice.” Jake says he doesn’t even feel like going to the party that he and Adam planned to attend that night. Adam replies, “Come on, we’re not getting wasted. We’re just doing a little mellow E.”

Of course, Jake changes his mind and goes to the party, because every slasher movie with college-age people has to have the obligatory scene of people partying while a killer is on the loose. And then there are also the expected sex scenes. In “Smiley Face Killers,” the sex isn’t as explicit as it is in other slasher flicks, because Jake has “performance issues.” Jake goes over to the student house where his girlfriend Keren (played by Mia Serafino) lives, they go to her room to have sex, but things don’t happen the way they want.

And because of Jake’s “performance issues,” it’s here that viewers find out that he’s on the antidepressant Nardil. Jake’s mental illness is never fully explained in the movie, such as when he was diagnosed, if he has other psychiatric issues besides depression, and how it all affects his life. In the end, it doesn’t make a difference in this idiotic film, because the killer on the loose isn’t asking for people’s medical histories.

“Smiley Face Killers” wastes a lot of time with a dull storyline about problems in Jake and Keren’s relationship. Keren is upset because Jake has told her that he’s stopped taking his medication, and then he reluctantly tells her he’ll start taking his meds again. Jake is upset because he’s found out that Keren still keeps in friendly contact with her most recent ex-boyfriend Rob (played by Cody Simpson), who might want to get back together with Keren. Viewers will be upset the more time they spend watching this movie because most of it is a monotonous slog.

Throughout the movie, viewers see that the mysterious white van has been driving around campus near places where Jake is, but Jake is oblivious until one night the van starts following him while he’s on his bicycle. He’s able to lose the van, but this dimwit isn’t on alert and doesn’t do anything to protect himself. You already know that there will be another time when he’s going to see that white van again. And when he does, his reaction is one of the worst things about this annoyingly bad movie.

Jake gets other clues that he’s being stalked. He starts getting random text messages that say variations of “The water is calling you.” He immediately assumes that it’s a prank that Rob is playing on him. Rob vehemently denies it when Jake accuses him. That leads to Rob and Jake having a predictable argument.

Jake starts to wonder if someone really is out to get him. Keren thinks that Jake’s mental health is deteriorating because he might or might not be telling the truth about taking his medication. While all of this is going on, Adam still expects Jake to party as if they don’t have a care in the world.

Jake shares a house with a 30-year-old grad student named Devon Holmes (played by Daniel Colvin). One day, Jake comes home and finds a strange map in his bedroom. The map has smiley faces drawn up and down the coast of California. Jake assumes the map belongs to Devon, and he’s slightly annoyed that his housemate would leave this map in his room. And not long after that, the murder spree happens on and near the college campus.

It’s not a spoiler (since it’s in the movie’s title) to say that there’s more than one killer involved. It’s obvious from the first 10 minutes that the killers are the same people who are in that white van. Crispin Glover portrays the mute and unnamed leader of this murderous team. This creepy killer is the one who’s most likely to step out of the van and slaughter someone. The only spoilers for this type of mindless movie would be to reveal who dies and who doesn’t.

“Smiley Face Killers” is one of those horror flicks filled with people who are good-looking in a way that’s unrealistic of what most real California college students would look like. It’s the type of movie where there’s no diversity, and all the college students with speaking roles look like physically attractive actors instead of real college students. And the people in these student roles seem to have been chosen more for their looks than their acting skills, because the acting in the movie is unbelievably bad.

It’s also one of those movies that embodies everything that people ridicule in repellently awful horror flicks. Everything is extremely predictable, the violence is mind-numbing, and the people who are being chased in the movie make very dumb decisions. “Smiley Face Killers” is an example of a reprehensible movie that tries to cash in on real-life tragedies. But even in this ripoff movie, the filmmakers couldn’t even get the details right of what happened in the real deaths that are believed to be part of the Smiley Face Killers theory. The only mystery about the film is why the producers wasted their money to get this worthless junk made.

Lionsgate released “Smiley Face Killers” on digital and VOD on December 4, 2020. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on December 8, 2020.