Reviewed by GREG KING
Directors: Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing
Stars: Ryan Shoos, Reese Mishler, Pfeifer Brown, Cassidy Gifford, Jesse Cross, Melissa Bratton.
The Blair Witch Project has a lot to answer for! That low budget horror film started the found footage genre of horror films. Shot on a microbudget with no-name actors and minimal production values, the film was enormously profitable and sparked a whole slew of found footage films like the increasingly insipid Paranormal Activity franchise. The latest film in the genre is The Gallows, which is the brainchild of a pair of young filmmakers, co-writers and directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing, who are obviously fans of the horror genre and familiar with the tropes right down to the obligatory sting in the tail.
The film largely takes place in the auditorium of Beatrice High School, where the school’s drama department are mounting a production of a play entitled The Gallows. Twenty years earlier, the drama department mounted a similar production, which ended badly when one of the cast members was accidentally killed during the performance in front of a packed audience.
The new production itself is a pet project for Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown), the smart and driven drama student, who wants to pay tribute to the 20th anniversary of that doomed production. The star of this production is Reese (Reese Mishler), who quit the football team to pursue his passion for theatre. But Reese seems too easily swayed by Ryan (Ryan Shoos), a fellow jock and somewhat immature captain of the football team, who convinces him that the show will be a disaster and he should quit.
To force the issue, Ryan sets out to break into the auditorium the night before the play opens and trash the set. Reluctantly Reese and Ryan’s girlfriend cheerleader Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford) join him. They are interrupted by the arrival of Pfeifer who tries to prevent them from ruining her play. But they quickly find themselves mysteriously trapped inside the auditorium and random spooky stuff happens. The four find themselves slowly hunted down by a spectral and malevolent presence, presumably the ghost of the dead student who has been patiently waiting for a chance at revenge.
The whole thing though is captured on Ryan’s video camera, which leads to lots nausea-inducing frantic jerky camerawork, out of focus footage and lots of shots of running feet. What sort of narcissistic, self-absorbed idiot plans to break into a school hall at night, trash the props for the major annual production and films himself doing it? This set up alone speaks volumes about today’s younger generation who live every minute of their life through social media without thinking through the consequences. And why didn’t Pfeifer just call the cops the thwart Ryan’s plans if she knew what was happening? And why is mobile phone reception so spotty throughout the auditorium? And how can this footage be passed off as evidence by the police when it has clearly been edited from multiple camera sources?
The central characters are generally a thoroughly unlikeable bunch, and all share their Christian name with their characters, in an attempt to make it seem more organic. But the characters themselves are pretty obvious stereotypes -from the empty headed jock through to the geek and the vacuous cheerleader – and staples of any number of high school dramas. It is hard to sympathise with any of them, especially the obnoxious Ryan, who is one of the most annoying characters ever created.
Much of the dialogue was apparently improvised on set, which also tries to add a more natural and unscripted feel to the material. But it is all a clever artifice which quickly wears thin, especially when all the screaming and frantic running around starts. The scared teens run through deserted locations and shadowy halls but there is precious little suspense or sense of terror here.
Cluff and Lofing could have generated more suspense by developing more of the backstory, and having the school board advise against the production in the first place, thus creating some suspense and tension from the outset. And the malevolent spirit could have jinxed the rehearsals too, increasing an air of mounting dread. Instead, this is typically lazy writing and filmmaking that substitutes a faux documentary style approach in place of the basics of decent and creative narrative filmmaking and doesn’t make a lot of sense. The best thing that can be said about The Gallows is that it is mercifully short, running for only 81 minutes.
This could have been a great slasher horror film if Cluff and Lofing had opted for a more conventional and traditional narrative structure. This could have been up there with some of those classic slasher films of the 80s and early 90s, which had much more suspense and gore and genuine thrills.
While fans of low budget found footage genre may appreciate it, I found The Gallows fairly pedestrian stuff and essentially a wasted opportunity. I am so over the whole found footage genre with its jerky, nausea-inducing hand held camera aesthetic and low rent production values.
As it is though, The Gallows has been profitable at the box office. It cost some $100,000 to make and has grossed over $18 million already. Typically, a number of sequels have apparently already been planned, turning Charlie Grimille, the spectral hangman, into another unstoppable serial killer/villain along the lines of iconic figures like Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees.