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I hate trashing movies. I really do. Even some of the worst films in existance are redeemable in some way, but Smiley Face Killers is a film made for no one. I’m an easy-going girl. I don’t fret about time wasted or ill-spent because why bother? There’s always tomorrow right, well this damn movie had me bitter about the hour and thirty minutes I wasted watching it. Time I could’ve spent on rewatching Re-Animator. Every now and then I will come across a film that not only baffles me but makes me wonder why the hell they even made the thing?

What is this film? Other than an excuse to ogle over Ronen Rubinstein’s body and to offer an undercooked crime theory, there’s almost no point to its existence. It’s not entertaining, it’s not informative, it’s not moving, it’s not anything. It’s just there. The excessive amount of boob shots that appear in the Friday the 13th remake has nothing on this attempt at a psychological slasher. Smiley Face Killers could be a drinking game, there are over 15 full shots of actor Ronen Rubinstein’s naked chest and a little over 10 shots of his naked ass. The lights in his shower are brighter than the ones in his bedroom. Honestly, the way this movie constantly finds a way to take off Rubinstein’s clothes is the best thing about it because it’s so hilarious.

Rubinstein is indeed a sight to behold but I prefer my objectification with a bit of little plot to go with it. Otherwise, he’s just a lifeless pretty face, like a corpse, a corpse that acts about as bored as I was while I was watching this. May I suggest 9-1-1: Lone Star or Some Kind of Hate if you want to see a more decent showcase of Rubinstein’s face and acting. Don’t go here.

Directed by Tim Hunter and written by novelist Bret Easton Ellis whose strength clearly resides in books and not screenplays, Smiley Face Killers is a big dull dud that doesn’t know what to do with itself. It’s also a complete waste of potential. If the last 20 minutes were separated from the rest of the feature and made into a short film, it would’ve been pretty good. The rest is just excess and such a pointless endeavor that it’s astounding. Did they have some extra money lying around and decide to just poop out a film over the weekend?

The story follows young college student Jake Graham (Rubinstein) as he’s being stalked by three hooded figures who plan on murdering him. Even though he’s somewhat aware of their presence, he doesn’t exactly realize what’s going on yet he can feel their eyes watching and it’s putting a major damper on his social life.

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Before we’re even introduced to Jake though, the film offers up an explanation for what’s about to happen. The explanation appears like a written prologue on the screen less than five minutes into the opening explaining that it is based on a true story. “Since 1997, more than 156 young men across US college campuses have drowned under suspicious circumstances. Symbols spray-painted at the scenes have led some to propose these accidents are in fact, serial killers.” This basically just gives everything way and is a sign of the film’s laziness. It prefers to just tell the audience what is happening rather than show it through a story.

What follows is treated as one segment in a long series of events that have already happened. Such a setup makes the film feel like a slasher posing as a documentary made with the quality of a Lifetime movie.

Jake himself is not a very likable protagonist. Almost immediately we’re told about his unspecified mental illness for which he requires medication that he’s recently stopped taking. We’ve seen this before, haven’t we? A poor protagonist is not taken seriously because they are “crazy” and off their meds. Same thing here.

However, we see nothing of Jake’s behavior before the film so his friends and girlfriend constantly bringing up his lack of meds and apparent strange behavior just sounds like white noise. It doesn’t help that Jake himself acts no different between the start of the film and the end of the film. By the way, another thing about Jake…he never brings up the fact that someone is actively following him around for about 99% of the movie. The stalkers aren’t even trying to be inconspicuous. They leave their van in the open, kill Jake’s roommate, chase him down the street, start sending him strange texts, and even break into his room to leave clues of his demise, but he never makes the connection that these actions are the workings of someone dangerous. He never considers calling the police.

Crispin Glover plays the lead killer who has only a minor appearance. The only performance, outside of a brief burst of life from Rubinstein near the end, with any actual weight behind it. He’s joined with two others and together they form a cult that seemingly worships a figure known as Galiel who shares a connection to water.

What their religion is and who they worship is never explained but it’s the reason they’re drowning young men across America for each sacrifice is meant to represent Galiel in human form being sent back to the ocean. All this is crammed into the last 20 minutes when it should have been the premise itself.

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What is the real smiley face killers theory?

The backbone of Smiley Face Killers is the alleged true story that it’s based on. It’s the reason the plot goes nowhere as Hunter and Ellis worry too much about going along with these events within their own story that they want to match in menace and mystery. The premise of the film is loosely based on a serial killer theory that’s been floating around in urban legend status for years. The theory largely comes from three individuals, two retired detectives and a professor, who believe that a number of young men who have drowned in various bodies of water across Midwestern America from the late 1990s to the 2010s are actually the victims of a serial killer or a group of killers.

The “smiley face” part comes from the occasional smiley face graffiti mark found near some of the bodies. Many of which were later discovered to have been painted on years before the victims lived in the areas.

The theory hasn’t been well received by experts and isn’t supported by any evidence aside from the few smiley faces (one of the most popular graffiti markings of the 1990s) found at the scenes. Many of the deceased died after consuming large amounts of alcohol and drugs and showed no signs of trauma prior to entering the water. The “research” for this film clearly consisted of just googling “smiley face killers theory” and copying the alleged torture and murder of Christopher Jenkins, one of the victims whose parents claimed he was tortured in a van for hours before getting dumped in the water despite there being no indication that this is true. Jenkins’ body showed no signs of trauma and contrary to popular belief, water does not magically wash away all evidence. Though it does make homicide considerably harder to prove.

‘The FBI has reviewed the information about the victims provided by two retired police detectives, who have dubbed these incidents the “Smiley Face Murders,” and interviewed an individual who provided information to the detectives. To date, we have not developed any evidence to support links between these tragic deaths or any evidence substantiating the theory that these deaths are the work of a serial killer or killers. The vast majority of these instances appear to be alcohol-related drownings. The FBI will continue to work with the local police in the affected areas to provide support as requested.” FBI National Press Office, FBI Statement Regarding Midwest River Deaths on April 29, 2008

Verdict

Again I will ask, what the hell is this movie? Who made the okay for this? Cats was a better horror movie than this. Mr. Ellis if you’re listening, stick to writing books! This whole thing was a poorly researched take on a seemingly true story about as solid as cheesecloth. The characters were less than one-dimensional but just descriptions of characters reading lines like they were half-asleep.

Smiley Face Killers deserves one star for attempt but the appearance of Crispin Glover and the whole final act brings it up to one and a half. Way to go. 1.5 out of 5 stars (1.5 / 5)

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Rachel Roth is a writer who lives in South Florida. She has a degree in Writing Studies and a Certificate in Creative Writing, her work has appeared in several literary journals and anthologies. @WinterGreenRoth

Movies n TV

Goosebumps, Cuckoo Clock of Doom

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Named for the 28th installment of the original book series, The Cuckoo Clock of Doom has the least in common so far with its source material.

Thankfully, the story isn’t negatively impacted by this. I can honestly say so far that these episodes just keep getting better.

The story

After the last episode’s explosive ending, I’m sure we were all more than a little worried about James. I for one was worried we were going to have an example of the Bury Your Gays trope on a kid’s show.

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Cover of R.L. Stine Cuckoo Clock of Doom

Thankfully, that’s not the case.

We go back in time again to Halloween night, and this time we see what James was up to.

Mostly he was up to trying to flirt with his crush. Everything seems to be going well until James lies about being interested in football.

He tries to leave the house, but instead finds himself back at the basement door when Isaiah is trapped and the cuckoo clock is going off. James then shows a remarkable amount of genre savvy and tries his best to escape the house. Each time he does, we see another version of him walking away.

Eventually, he devises a plan to break the clock at just the right moment, but not before he gets some intel on his crush’s favorite team so he can score a date.

Back in the real world free of the time loop though, James finds that he has far more worries. Every time he tried to escape the house, a duplicate version of him was created. And all of those duplicates are waiting for him.

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Back at the Biddle house, though, there’s a surprise waiting. One of the James duplicates has brought Harold Biddle a box. A ventriloquist dummy-sized box.

An empty box.

What worked

The effects of this show so far have been wonderful. When the other characters hit a James duplicate, it doesn’t just die. It explodes in a Nickelodeon-style wave of slime. This is just fun, and I’m kind of sad there doesn’t appear to be more of the duplicates around.

I mean, I wouldn’t rule it out.

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Ana Yi Puig in Goosebumps.

Did I mention that these duplicates appeared to smell like watermelon Jolly Ranchers when they exploded? That was a visceral detail that was both alarming and terrific. They could have smelled bad. They could have smelled like rotting plants or people. But no, they smell like candy.

Of course, the characters continue to steal the show. Margot and Isaiah could be said to be the main characters, but everyone comes into this with main character energy. They are all funny, all capable, all smart. And they all seem to care about each other.

I loved that James and Isaiah talked about how they were feeling. I think it’s important that we’re modeling that for young men. They talked about what was bothering them, and they made up.

Finally, though, we have to talk about Justin Long again. His acting in this just keeps stealing the show. He dances like a cartoon and jumps from joyful to violently furious at a moment’s notice. The character doesn’t know how to act, and watching him fail to act right in front of people never fails to make me laugh.

What didn’t work

I honestly can’t say that anything didn’t work in this episode. But there is something about the show that I, at least, don’t like.

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There’s no real blood or gore. There’s more blood when I eat an actual jolly rancher because I always cut my tongue on them.

Now, this show is pretty clearly not for kids and young adults so there’s probably not a lot of need for too much gore and violence. But if the bloody stuff is more your style, like me, the lack of it might disappoint you.

Fans of the Goosebumps books will know that everyone ended with a twist. And the show so far has been no different. And the ending of this episode has been the best so far. The tension of Margot’s mom’s impassioned reaction, blended with the revelation that Slappy is somewhere in town is just too much. I can’t believe we’re only three episodes in and I am this invested. I hope you are too.

Viewer beware, I suspect things are going to get a lot worse for our characters before they get better.

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4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

If you’re a fan of my work, please check out my latest story, Nova, on Paper Beats World. New chapters launch every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

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Movies n TV

Goosebumps, The Haunted Mask

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Episode two of Goosebumps was honestly more fun than the first. It was dark, funny, infuriating and wonderful. Best of all, it has a killer twist ending.

Let’s discuss.

The story

Based loosely on the 1993 story of the same name, The Haunted Mask begins sort of partway through the first episode.

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Cover of R.L. Stine's The Haunted Mask.

We’re introduced to a character we haven’t seen much of so far, named Isabella.

Isabella’s life doesn’t seem great. She’s all but invisible at school. She is responsible for taking care of her little brother. It seems like her only real joy is bullying people online. She was the person who tried to get Allison’s party canceled by sending the invite to her parents. Why? Because she is a very unhappy person.

Despite trying to get the party canceled, she decides to go anyway. At the Biddle house, a voice calls her down to the basement. There, she finds a mask.

The mask inspires her to do wild things. She wanders around the party, flirting with everyone. And she has a great time.

Several days later, after Isaiah breaks his arm, Isabella brings an expensive drone to school to get shots of the football team’s practice. Unfortunately, Lucas breaks it fooling around. And Isabella, tired of being ignored, says some awful things to him.

When her mother grounds her because she took the drone without asking, the mask compels her to do some awful things.

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What worked

I would first like to talk about the storytelling structure in this season. It appears that we’re going to be getting the events of Halloween night multiple times, from multiple points of view.

Ana Yi Puig in Goosebumps.

I love this structure. It’s unique, and it allows for more mystery in a shorter period. It’s also more complex, showing just how much madness was happening, while just showing one part of the story at a time.

Another thing I appreciated was the evolution of the character Lucas.

On one hand, it’s easy to be angry at Lucas. Even if he thought the drone belonged to the school, it’s still kind of a selfish move to break it.

But Lucas just lost his father. We don’t know how yet, but we know from Nora that his death caused Lucas to start doing things like jumping on drones and skateboarding off the roof from his bedroom window.

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We all mourn differently. Losing a parent as a teen is awful. So while we can all agree that he’s being a problem, he’s also being a sad kid working through something hard.

And the same can be said for Isabella.

Look, we still don’t know what the adults of this town did to make Harold Biddle haunt them. But we do know that these parents are messing up in all sorts of other ways. And Isabella is suffering from parentification. She’s being forced to play mom at home while being ignored by her classmates at school. Even without the mask, I could see her lashing out and trashing the house.

Finally, I love Justin Long in this series. His visual comedy was fantastic here, as he falls through the hallways. But he also manages to be scary as hell. His creepy smile and jerky movements are enough to make anyone’s skin crawl. I honestly can’t think of a living actor who could have played this better.

What didn’t work

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If I have one complaint about this episode, it’s the music. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great. Every song seems like it’s just screaming what the characters are thinking. Which isn’t really what I’d consider the point of a soundtrack.

Maybe it’s just a curse on RL Stine. None of his projects can ever have good soundtracks aside from the theme song.

Unlike the original Goosebumps series, there were moments in this episode that did startle me and unnerve me. Which is wonderful. And while it’s still clearly for kids, it’s something anyone can sit down and enjoy. I’m very excited for the rest of the season. But what do you think? Let us know in the comments.

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

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If you’re a fan of my work, please check out my latest story, Nova, on Paper Beats World. New chapters launch every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

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Movies n TV

Goosebumps Say Cheese and Die

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Released in 2023, Goosebumps is the latest in a line of content based on the insanely popular children’s book series with the same name. And if you’re here, I’m guessing I don’t have to tell you a lot about Goosebumps. Most horror fans are at least passingly aware of the colorful covers, dark plotlines, and surprise twist endings. Some of us even have a few of the original books lying around.

For nostalgia.

Cover for Say Cheese and Die, Goosebumps number 4.

With so many good and bad versions of the original stories floating around, I was unsure how to feel about this brand-new series. I was sure, however, that I had to watch all of it. Especially with the infamous Slappy appearing so prominently in the advertising.

So, how was the first episode?

The story

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We start this episode with a flashback to 1993, and a young man named Harold Biddle. We don’t spend a lot of time with him. He comes home from school and goes right to the basement. There he starts writing some concerning notes in his journal. This is interrupted when a fire consumes the basement, killing him.

We then flash forward thirty years to the real start of our story. The Biddle house has just been inherited by a man named Nathan Bratt, played by the delightful Justin Long. He adores the place but is less than thrilled when a bunch of teens crash it for a Halloween party.

The teens end up not being thrilled either.

Now we come to our real main characters, Isaiah, Margot, Allison, and James. It is the four of them that planned the ill-fated party.

Zack Morris in Goosebumps

While in the house, Isaiah finds a Polaroid camera. He starts taking pictures of his friends, only to find that they don’t come out right. One of them, Allison, shows her on the ground in the woods, terrified for her life. Another shows Margot in a panic next to a snack machine.

Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that he eventually sees both of the girls in those exact situations. The real trouble comes when Lucas takes a picture of him, and it shows him on the football field, horribly injured.

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All of these near-death experiences seem to be caused by the flaming spirit of Harold Biddle. And it soon becomes clear that the adults of the town likely know more than they’re willing to tell about what went down at the Biddle house thirty years ago.

What worked

For someone who grew up with the series, and is therefore of a certain age, the first scene of the episode was a lot of fun. It oozed 90’s vibe in a way that’s immediately recognizable to most, and familiar to my generation. Well, insomuch as wearing flannel and coming home to an empty house is the pinnacle of being a 90s kid.

It was also fun for the constant references to books in the original series. Blink and you missed them, but I saw the Cuckoo Clock of Doom, Haunted Mask, and Go Eat Worms. These make sense, as they each have their episode this season. But I’m sure I missed a few. Please let me know in the comments.

That was a lot of fun for someone who grew up with the series. But it wasn’t so constant and all-consuming as to distract from the story. Someone could have never read a Goosebumps book in their lives and just enjoy this episode of television.

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More importantly, younger viewers can watch this and feel like it’s for them. The main characters aren’t the parents, they’re the kids. And it’s clear even in this first episode that, even if it was the grownups who caused this horror, it’s going to be the kids that fix it.

This is a series that is for kids. And that’s great. It’s introducing a whole new generation to a series in a way that feels like it can be theirs just as much as it was ours when we were kids.

What didn’t work

All that being said, the story also felt a little dumbed down. A little too predictable. There was one line that particularly irritated me in this regard. When Nora goes to see Isiah’s dad in the hospital, she just flat-out says, “The children will suffer for the sins of the fathers.”

Not only is that just a bad line, it’s also a lazy one. It’s awkward and unrealistic. People simply do not talk that way. And we frankly didn’t need this information dropped on us. It was pretty clear during the football game that at least some of the grownups in town were going to be involved with this when we saw Nora recognize what was happening to Isaiah and try to stop the game. Kids are smart. They would have figured this out by themselves.

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It’s also a really tired trope. Freddy and Jason after all, are both killing young people for the sins of their parents. It was a big part of the storyline in Hide. And while I get that this might feel relevant to the next generation who are all paying for the mistakes of Boomers that Gen X and Millennials have not done enough to solve, it’s also a bit lazy. I just feel like, if this is going to be our main story, it could have been a better one.

But this isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy this episode. Overall, it was a fun start that left me with lots of questions. I’m excited to see where the rest of the season takes us.

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

If you’re a fan of my work, please check out my latest story, Nova, on Paper Beats World. New chapters every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

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