Smiley didn't get a whole lot of attention during its brief theatrical run, in part because of a neutered and confusing marketing campaign, but it's worthwhile for fans of slasher movies to check out. Featuring a killer who looks like an emoticon and appears when a hackneyed bit of hacker-speak is typed into the machine, he's an era-appropriate bogeyman for the cyber-generation, and director Michael J, Gallagher is great at conjuring jump-scares (some of which are extremely cheap...but they all work).
With the DVD coming out today, I spoke to Gallagher about his film and why it ought to catch your attention.
Luke Y. Thompson: The poster that I see up now online is really cool, but it's not like any of the ones that I saw when it was theatrical, which were black and white and made me think it was just a paper bag over someone's head with a smiley face. Was that an MPAA mandate because the original one was too gruesome or was that you trying to keep some spoilers going?
Michael J. Gallagher: That was an MPAA choice. I'm so bummed about it! I'm so glad you brought that up. I don't want to totally bash them in an interview, but they really fucked us. They said Smiley Face was way too frightening for people to see out in public. And we had all these great posters that we came up with and they said "No, no, no!" We literally came up with about 35 posters. Finally, we got to the point where they said "It has to either be a mask, or just cannot see that it's flesh." And that was sort of the whole point of Smiley. And so the two options we came up with were putting the face on Ashley and making it a mask, and the other one being it a black and white inverted image of him waving. So we did what we could, but I think the poster that we have on the cover art is really what we were intending. I'm glad we finally got to release it.
LYT: Your background is in comedy, right? This is quite a stretch - you got the jump scare going really well, the one with the little girl at the beginning - I watched it twice and it got me both times.
MJG: That's great! Yeah, I think comedy and horror are kind of twisted cousins of each other. I think some of my favorite horror films have some of the funniest scenes, and I think it's sort of the two genres where you're trying to get reactions out of your audience, and so it didn't feel like that much of a stretch, even though one is so light and one is so dark. I feel like they're more connected than people give them credit for.
LYT: Well, Guillermo del Toro says they are related because they're the most honest, the reactions are always going to be honest; when you make someone laugh or jump, they can't make that up.
LYT: In conceiving this, was there someone who texted you and just annoyed you with too many smileys?
LYT: Obviously there is some Candyman influence, but using specifically the smiley as an icon of death; is it something that pissed you off over the years and you just want to get it out there?
MJG: Aww, man! Yeah, I think too many texts from people ending with a smiley face blew me over the edge! No, it was something that - I don't know if it was the smiley image was something that we really wanted to make horrific, if that was really the place we were coming from, but in working on the script and writing with Glasgow [Phillips], for some reason the villain was always named "Smiley," and it started with he just had a stocking over his face with lipstick or blood in the shape of a smiley face. There actually had been some smiley face murders, and there were some videos of people wearing stockings, this weird kind of subculture of people doing that, and I think it kind of started from that. And then as we started really writing the script and getting into it more, for some reason that image came of a stitched-in smiley face into the flesh face, and there was no going back. So we kind of retooled it a little bit for that concept. I guess if people are afraid to write a smiley face now, then hopefully we can contribute to stopping that nonsense.
LYT: The movie is sort of in the grand tradition of the '80s movies, sort of cautionary and conservative, sort of "Hey, kid, if you fuck around and don't do what your parents tell you, the bogeyman is going to come and kill you." And this is sort of like, "If you screw around online too much it's going to come back and bite you in the ass." Was that something you were deliberately trying to get in there?
MJG: Yeah, absolutely. I'm not from the Bible Belt, and I'm not someone who wants to impose a lot of rules on someone, but I do feel that the youth today are really liberal with sharing on the Internet, with not really worrying about the consequences of what they do online. And I think about 20, 30 years from now, when we'll have a president who was from the age of not knowing when there wasn't an Internet, and not growing up with high-speed streaming video - I'm sure that our future leaders will have pretty checkered pasts of what they've done on the Internet; you can just pull up their search history to see what they've looked at and done. I don't think that as seriously as maybe they should, because everything is being documented, we're all being watched, in a way, or can be, at least, and so I think this was fun to use the genre to talk about that issue, even if it is in a sort of fantastical way. I think it is a major concern that people should deal with, so we wanted to show it to them in the most horrific way we could.