Maybe I’m alone in doing this, but when a found footage film commits to the gimmick — and make no mistake, nine times out of ten the only reason a film uses this format is because it’s a cost-saving gimmick — and pretends to be actual found footage, I always wonder who’s responsible for curating the footage for the viewers. When it opens with onscreen text notifying us that what we’re about to see is property of the police department, ostensibly as evidence in the crime we’re about to witness, who exactly edited the footage for dramatic beats and narrative flow? Who added the sound cues to accentuate the jump scares?
Invariably, the answer is simply the filmmakers themselves as they’ve neglected to think their idea through with any reasonable amount of detail or competence. It should surprise no one then that the rest of the film is usually just as ill-conceived, sloppy, and devoid of artistic intelligence.
Speaking of which, let’s review The Gallows!
It opens with camcorder footage from 1993 of a school play, a period piece involving a hanging, but something goes wrong and the student with his head in the noose is accidentally killed onstage. Two decades later, after onscreen text identifies the upcoming footage as police evidence, we’re in the same school as they prepare to bring “The Gallows” back to the stage. It’s difficult to imagine a high school that would re-attempt a performance that previously killed a student — even going so far as to tastelessly print programs identical to those from ’93 — but writers/directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing get around that conflict by not bothering to explain it at all.
Ryan (Ryan Shoos), the student behind the camera, is supposed to be documenting the production but is actually just shooting footage for the purpose of mockery. He makes fun of the nerdy AV Club guys, ugly girls, and his friend, Reese (Reese Mishler), who traded in his football jersey for frilly blouses and the lead in the play opposite the school’s theater department star, Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown). Ryan’s blond, cheerleader girlfriend, Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford), is hanging around too for frequent cleavage shots.
You’ll notice that the four leads are playing characters with names the same as their own. Presumably so much brain power was used creating the laughably bad story behind The Gallows that there was simply none left to think up character names.
The four teens find their way into the school late on the night before the play premieres, but when they attempt to leave the premises they find they’re locked in, and worse, they don’t appear to be alone. Inexplicably secret passageways lead to a haunted television set, a ghostly figure in Pilgrim garb and a hangman’s mask haunts the halls, and rope is mysteriously appearing out of thin air. They try to escape with plans as diverse as “Splitting Up” and “Whining,” but it’s to no avail. It doesn’t help that they’ve made the mistake of attending the one high school in America without windows.
All of the usual found footage gaffes are present and accounted for — there’s a comedically inept and douchey cameraman who insists on narrating even the most basic observations, there’s the curiosity of how certain shots are achieved, there’s the question of why characters are still filming at all — and we also get the issues mentioned above. Did the police edit the footage into a narrative with shifting viewpoints and such? Did they add sounds to amp up the scares?
There’s an attempt here to make the ghostly villain, Charlie, into a memorable antagonist — ha, kidding, there’s no attempt at all. Some of the characters warn others not to say his name, but there’s no cause and effect on that front (ie saying “Candyman” or “Bloody Mary” three times). There’s no tragic backstory or impetus for supernatural revenge either, and no attempt is made to humanize him in an effort to give his actions meaning.
Other script issues abound too above and beyond the school’s poor decision-making skills and prison-like walls. Reese, the character not the actor, is a terrible actor who’s only in it to get closer to Pfeifer, so how exactly did he get this lead role? The kids repeatedly split up, the ghost from ’93 knows how to operate an iPhone, two big reveals in the third act are ridiculous in that there’s no way they wouldn’t have already been common knowledge, and perhaps the biggest sin of all for a horror film built on jump scares — the movie is never scary. The script-based reason is that we at no point like or care about these characters as they’re all some combination of obnoxious or idiotic, and if we’re not worried for them we’re not scared for them. The directing component is just as lacking, though, as the film attempts to rely almost exclusively on jump scares accompanied by a loud sound cue to let us know it’s time to be frightened.
The Gallows is being excreted into theaters by producer Jason Blum, and it’s doubly offensive because he recently dumped Creep — a rare example of a smartly crafted and genuinely entertaining found footage film — directly onto iTunes. It’s no doubt an issue of marketability, but it’s still frustrating seeing a quality film shuffled into VOD while an amateurish stinker like The Gallows rolls out in wide release.
The Upside: The bare basics of filmmaking; only 81 minutes long
The Downside: Script is dumb; found footage lacks purpose and logic; never scary; ending is just silly; why is this R-rated?