Published Jul 10, 2015The found footage method of horror movie storytelling is so clichéd by now that it's a wonder filmmakers return to it at all. Every so often, one will transcend the genre, and become something similar to the grandmother of all handheld horror, The Blair Witch Project. That tightly crafted and well-paced piece of escalating tension and horror, heightened by the sensory deprivation of watching something through another's eyes, made a lasting impression in 1999; today, more often than not, found footage films rely on taking the road too often traveled, even when they boast a fresh new concept that might have reinvigorated the genre. The Gallows, despite flashes of promise, is one of these.
The film centres on a group of high school kids on the eve of their drama class's performance of the eponymous play. Twenty years ago, the same play caused a tragic accidental hanging — why anyone would want to put on a memorial show is mystifying, but here we are. Leading man Reese (Reese Mishler) is putting in a lacklustre performance, to the frustration of his co-star Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown). Upon learning that Reese has a crush on Pfeifer, buddy Ryan (Ryan Shoos) and his girlfriend Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford) decide to sneak into the school that night to trash the set; if the play can't go on, Reese won't embarrass Pfeifer with his undeveloped thespian skills. Upon arrival, Ryan, Cassidy and a crew of pals discover Pfeifer preparing for the show — and that they can't leave.
The good news is that this cast of characters is so incredibly obnoxious that after 15 minutes I couldn't wait to see them die. Ryan and his friends are an accidental parody of jock dudebros, with wooden cheerleader girlfriends and cringe-worthy dialogue that suggests Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing have never met a teenage boy before. Shoos throws himself into it with gusto at least, playing Ryan with the grace of a frat boy lighting farts on fire on YouTube. Only Brown turns her character into a real person, nailing the enthusiasm and half-buried desperation of a typical theatre kid.
Had this been a tongue-in-cheek assemblage of "the jock, the geek, the cheerleader and the sensitive hero," The Gallows could have been a smart and cynical take on the genre — but it's just too damn sincere. Every shot resounds with eagerness; every absurd line is delivered with a total lack of self-awareness.
The Gallows is full of little glints of promise that sadly don't pan out. There are some excellent visual cues, subtler than are usually seen in these films, and eerie sound editing; a scene in which the camera tracks creaky footsteps across the floor above is one of the film's creepiest moments. But these are spoiled by the inclusion of so many clichés (my theatre burst into laughter at the reveal of a static-filled television set behind a creepy door), awkward dialogue and frustrating pacing.
The Gallows is almost saved by its ending, which lets the shit hit the fan with a gleefully over-the-top twist. It finally feels like the directors are having fun, but it's unfortunately too late to salvage the rest of The Gallows.