The Gallows: competently shot, horrendously written and absolutely f#cking terrifying when it wants to be. In other words, The Gallows is a rigorous task destined to make any found footage fan want to rip his or her hair out. At this very moment, my inner angels and demons are clashing over whether the merits of creators Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing deserve praise or dismissal, because there’s so much to love AND hate in this short, compact horror flick.
On one hand, the film immediately proves to be anything but noteworthy. Following a typical cinematic horror formula, we find the stars of this easily predictable maze running through The Gallows’ haunted high schools halls without any surprises. On the other hand, wicked screams ignite bone-chilling scares that reach farther than just a well-placed jump. Can blood-red-tinted moments of true fear outweigh characters who are obnoxiously oblivious to the demonic world around them?
Cluff and Lofing’s haunting tale takes place twenty years after an accidental stage prop snafu left a high school actor named Charlie hanging in front of a packed house, leaving the end of the play, “The Gallows,” in stomach-churning disaster. This doesn’t stop the class of 2013 from honoring the cursed production with their own rendition, however, headed by ex-football-player-turned-bumbling-leading-man, Reese (Reese Mishler), and the school’s leading theater talent, Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown).
But when Reese admits his crush on Pfeifer to his insufferably dickish best friend, Ryan (Ryan Shoos), he realizes that his lack of talent may ruin the play and his chances with Pfeifer. In an effort to sabotage opening night, Reese, Ryan and Ryan’s girlfriend, Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford), sneak into their school’s auditorium late at night to destroy the set, only to find themselves locked inside the dark, eerie school. And they don’t seem to be alone.
The Gallows begins with the introduction of our camera-toting tour guide, Ryan. We learn that drama classes are mandatory at this Nebraska high school, which is how a football stud like Ryan ends up wasting his time as a stage-hand with responsibilities he couldn’t care less about. You know, like every jock nerd-basher who carries around a super tech-y high-definition video camera wherever they go, because that was a stereotypical look in high school.
Despite the character’s confusing composition, Ryan, driven by an overtly obnoxious Hollywood coolness, goes on to earn his place amongst the most bro-tactularly insufferable found footage characters in the history of horror. His “jokes” are like nails on a chalkboard, and his actions are meant to make us hate the foolish, overconfident, annoying chatterbox. In that respect, success is certainly achieved, but the worst part is, we’re stuck with Shoos’ doomed performance as the main point of contact for a majority of The Gallows – meaning there’s no escaping his mind-numbing grasp.
Yet, despite Ryan’s best efforts, The Gallows has the capacity to scare the absolute shit out of less-seasoned audiences. Horror nuts who have digested the vast smorgasbord of found footage offerings will recognize an all-too-familiar formula setting up each predictable jump scare, but that doesn’t stop Charlie (dressed in full executioner’s clothing) from creeping his way into our nightmares. I’ll admit, while the tension became unbearable, a smile crept onto my face as I experienced a true sense of fear building inside my shaken, rattled self.
Cluff and Lofing frame some wonderfully devious scenes loaded with glimpses of Charlie’s menacing prop mask glaring directly at us. It’s in these terror-filled moments that The Gallows comes together as a surprisingly clean found footage movie that doesn’t fall into the shaky-cam tactics of so many other blurry copycats. Ryan’s only positive contribution to this schoolhouse massacre is his super-crisp HD camera, but it’s a HUGE advantage at that.
Imagine a world where found footage movies don’t cause motion sickness OR prevent viewers from witnessing each jolting lurch through fuzzy distortion. I promise this is no fantasy because Cluff and Lofing aim to please, along with their cinematographer Edd Lukas. Gifford’s fantastic exit-stage-left disappearance pulls the tension tight like a noose around our own necks, all because of a wide-angle frame that captures every suffocating detail of Charlie’s handy work. Other found footage movies would have cut away or gone to static, but The Gallows strives to be a more complete horror experience.
At the end of the day, however, the keyword above is “strives,” because this film still inevitably stinks of inexperience. Secrets become obvious as Reese’s struggle for survival intensifies, revelatory information is discovered that you’d assume should be common knowledge, and Charlie’s wavering ability to be captured on film is never fully explained. In an attempt to heighten the quality of normal found footage picturing, Cluff and Lofing forget that storyboarding is just as important. What’s the phrase – so close, yet so far? That’s the best way I can describe The Gallows, a movie that masquerades as something much more than found footage annoyances, and while everything LOOKS good based on appearance, we’re still subject to all the same plot-holes, horrid character work and an ending that’s more gimmicky than satisfying. No matter how artistically it’s shot.
Where else are you going to get your summer thrills, though? Insidious: Chapter 3 has come and (mostly) gone, which means The Gallows is your only option when it comes to a good date-night snuggle movie this July (in theaters, that is). Thankfully, this test of wits is more fun and rewarding than an hour-long Scantron quiz, and you could find yourself chained to a much more worthless endeavor as far as entertainment goes. That’s if you can look past every grating moment of Ryan’s painstaking bravado, Reese’s unaware nature, and flip-flopping rules that let Charlie do whatever he wants in the name of a good scare. Let’s just say Cluff and Lofing could have done with a little more pencil sharpening, even if there are a handful of fast and furious scares.
Like a tightly fastened noose, The Gallows is loaded with suffocating fear, but generic and often thoughtless storytelling undercuts the scream-worthy scares.