Release Date: July 10th, 2015 (US); July 17th, 2015 (UK)
Genre: Horror; Thriller
Starring: Reese Mishler, Pfeifer Brown, Ryan Shoos, Cassidy Gifford
Remember the days when movie titles made use of inanimate objects and animals to induce a sense of clinical creep? The Birds. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Alien. Those are probably bad examples given chain saw massacres are far from inanimate and aliens aren’t technically animals, but the point is The Gallows could have been one of those movies with a creepy title backed up by creepier content. It’s not, as it transpires, and that becomes fairly obvious fairly quickly.
We’re back in the found footage dimension — you know, the black abyss of modern horror — and in the company of cameraman Ryan (he’s really a high school footballer but for the purposes of this film he’s also a cameraman), his girlfriend Cassidy, pal Reese, and Reese’s crush Pfeifer. The foursome find themselves locked in school after dark and, unsurprisingly, are drawn into a sinister game of cat and mouse opposite the ghost of tragic history. Moral of the story? School finishes at 3:30 pm.
A common problem with the found footage design is it tends to hinder character development because it limits how we literally see those on-screen, often from the same angle and same perspective, while hiding the person behind the camera. As such, the characterisation here is pretty sub-standard: “Hey Reese, can I borrow your blouse?” are some of the first words Ryan says to his mate after a dodgy drama rehearsal (Reese has decided the most effective route to Pfeifer’s heart is playing opposite her in their school theatre production). It’s a bland, easy introduction to a bland, easy set of students and one not at all aided by the rest of the football team’s boyish insults that follow.
This is the stereotypical, grating, douchey high school behaviour Richard Linklater mercifully avoided in Everybody Wants Some!! and the sort of behaviour that serves only to undermine any care we have for those on-screen. Even the drama students are unbearably caricature: geek attributes maximised, ‘dorky’ glasses abound, lead actress buoyed by more positive energy than the Sun. The film has only been on for around 10 minutes by this point but even by the 70th minute the same broad strokes are stifling people. At least in this version of high school the drama geeks manage to dish out some prank revenge on the football douches.
The actors use their own first names because it’s all real and they are not really actors. (On a serious note, aren’t we past the point of trying to pretend this found footage stuff is in any way authentic?) Their performances are fine, though Ryan — the guy hauling the camera around — oscillates between high-pitched wailing and incomprehensible whispering a little too often. Another thing that’s odd: the play that the students are rehearsing is a rerun of the same one that killed a child many years prior, and given people still seem traumatised by that event, why even do a rerun? Sure, it’s the 20th anniversary of the tragedy. But wouldn’t a memorial service have sufficed? It’s especially grisly when you consider the child died via accidental hanging.
Regardless, it’s an inevitable part of the plot therefore you’re left hoping for something to differentiate the film from the usual genre pack. Writer-director duo Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing dabble in the superstitions (“Break a leg”) of stage performing without reinventing them, or at the very least provoking any new connotations — maybe by not having the characters angrily coax the dead or leave an injured mate behind. Everything goes belly-up: open doors become locked (apart from the large brick one with an eerie cross engraved on it); the group start blaming each other amid ensuing relationship drama; the gallows’ noose, previously removed from its perch by Ryan, saunters back up there unassisted.
Of course, the school does bear windows that the group could break open and escape out of at any moment. The dialogue and situational development are both so poor you wonder whether the filmmakers are actually embarking down a purposefully satirical route — for instance, at the start of the movie Ryan discovers a damaged door primed for after-dark entry. See, Reese needs to destroy the play’s set because it is the only way he can get out of a would-be terrible performance. The only way. A performance, incidentally, that he agreed to deliver because he fancies Pfeifer and it is the only way Reese can initiate a relationship between the pair. The only way. That’s high school for you.
There are a handful of quiet-quiet-bang moments that give us a fright, but these are frights without substance. You won’t remember any of them because none of them hold any weight: they aren’t emotionally or audibly or visually scary (that’s not true: there is one suitably unsettling visual during a red-tinted scene that revisits the hauntingly quiet manoeuvres of the Babadook). But otherwise the attempted scares encourage a human reaction as natural as visiting the toilet during a three-hour Tarantino film.
Look, this is cheap horror, and worse, cheap found footage horror, made for popcorn audiences searching for an easy cinemagoing escape. I don’t doubt the people involved in the process put in a lot of hard work and effort, and perhaps for some of them The Gallows conveyed genuine promise. But it should be held to the same standard as the best outings, films like The Blair Witch Project, and there simply is no comparison. It’s another case of dollar bills over quality. Lo and behold, The Gallows made $43 million — so who cares?
Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.