Directors: Travis Cluff, Chris Lofing; Screenwriters: Travis Cluff, Chris Lofing; Starring: Reese Mishler, Pfeifer Brown, Ryan Shoos, Cassidy Gifford, Travis Cluff, Price T. Morgan; Running time: 81 minutes; Certification: 15
The Gallows, helmed by first time writing/directing partners Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing, is hailed in the film’s production notes as being the first truly homegrown horror movie that Blumhouse has nurtured since Paranormal Activity, a film with “the same DNA, and that ‘I could do that myself’ look”. While there’s undoubtedly a vein of truth to this (it does look like you could do it yourself), The Gallows is really anything but Paranormal Activity: like so many others, it just doesn’t understand that, in horror, less is almost always more.
That’s not to say this chiller set in a locked down high school haunted by a malevolent presence is entirely ineffective – for portions, certainly, it does more than a lot of shoehorned found-footage horror flicks. Reese (Houser) is a football jock who fancies the drama queen, Pfiefer (Ross), so has signed up for the lead role in a production of The Gallows to get close to her; The Gallows being a resurrection of the play that went terribly wrong 20 years earlier when a student in the lead role – Charlie – was actually hung to death in front of a shocked crowd. The only problem is Reese is a terrible actor, so his friend Ryan (Shoos – the most irritating character on screen this year) uses this as an excuse to break into the school at night and destroy the set, thus cancelling the play.
With a whiff of Sinister permeating the opening scene, and the whole parent/kid/revenge idea carrying a definite air of A Nightmare On Elm Street, we’re constantly thinking of other films right from the start – hardly surprising given first time directors. Yet evoking these better films doesn’t do the damage you might expect, because when the film proceeds gradually and insidiously, spending time building a palpable atmosphere and leaving the audience to scare themselves with their imagination, it works. There’s enough in here to raise the hairs on your arms and make you squeeze your fist – because the premise is actually pretty spooky. The subtle, distant creaking of noose in the darkness, almost imperceptible, or the sight of a long school corridor descending into a void of darkness; it’s all a lot scarier than you might think (anyone who played Fear 2 will know exactly why a school corridor at night isn’t a fun place to be). In these moments, when it’s not ostensibly trying too hard, The Gallows is a refreshing break from the wham-bam! approach found-footage horror has developed in recent years.
But only too soon these moments show themselves to be the exception. Seemingly unsure of quite how to handle the scares, almost as if it’s too afraid to let the subtle stuff run the show, the filmmakers either contrive jump scares (which are fine in some capacity but not when they’re left, right and centre), or simply send things into full-throttle, whereby the characters switch to run-around-and-scream-maniacally mode and the camera gets thrown all over the place, all while the spectral Charlie is revealing himself more and more in a surprisingly hokey way. As an idea he’s scary; as a barely perceptible shadow he’s scary; as a physical presence he’s like The Scarecrow from The Wizard Of Oz.
It doesn’t help that the characters range from largely unsympathetic to hair-pullingly annoying. The guy doing most of the camera work, the aforementioned Ryan, is such a grade-A jerk that we want him to die after just a few minutes in his company. He’s a jerk to other students, he’s a jerk to his teachers, he’s even a jerk to his friends. Why anybody would want to spend any amount of time with him is beyond me; the audience certainly doesn’t. In fact, most of them probably want to strangle him themselves. His girlfriend (the girl crying in all of the trailers) isn’t much better, which leaves us completely detached from half of the principle characters.
Clearly it’s a bit of a mixed bag. It’s important not to overlook the fact that there are some genuinely creepy moments, and some impressive conjuring of atmosphere that crawls under the skin, showing promise for two debut filmmakers. But it’s equally important not to overlook the fact that it’s doing nothing new with the genre, and that it all descends rather quickly into something quite generic. The Gallows is labelled as a homegrown horror film full of innovation and frights that will keep you awake at night; in reality, it’s a film which gets cold feet and resorts to shouting at us. “BOO! BE SCARED!”. Wham-bam.