Melding the urban legend to the Internet meme, the film “Smiley,” directed by young YouTube auteur Michael Gallagher from a script he co-wrote with Glasgow Phillips, is a surprisingly effective low-budget horror film that takes as its true villain the casual cynicism and nihilistic misanthropy that so often go along with online culture.
In the film, a story circulates among a group of college kids that typing the phrase “I did it for the lulz” — meaning just for kicks — three times while chatting online with a stranger will cause a grotesque creature to suddenly appear and kill the stranger. He’s a sort of Candyman for the digital age, his murders captured on Web cam.
It might be real, but it also might be a hoax. As one character says of whether anyone should believe in the online legend at the core of the film, “Nobody knows if its real, it’s on the Internet.”
There is an unnerving vulnerability to Caitlin Gerard’s lead performance, giving the film a shot of emotional reality that helps it immeasurably, as do capable supporting turns from “Gilmore Girl” alum Liza Weil as a concerned campus therapist, the venerable Keith David as a skeptical cop and Roger Bart as a disaffected teacher.
The storytelling gets repetitive, but there is enough here to make “Smiley” feel fresh and more or less satisfying as a low-key creeper.
“Smiley.” No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. At selected theaters.