At the end of the last century, The Blair Witch Project popularized the notion of idiots in horror movies filming every second of their own imminent demise. A deliberately unpolished subgenre was born: found-footage horror, cheap to make (with some higher-budget exceptions, Cloverfield among them), profitable in a flash.
The latest of these is The Gallows, shot for a buck-eighty-three in Fresno, California, by the writers-directors Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff. Picked up by Paranormal Activity and Insidious producer Jason Blum and distributed by Warner Brothers, this minimally clever addition to the existing pile of scares, fright and videotape doesn’t seem likely to become a Paranormal Activity-type phenomenon. Then again, neither did Paranormal Activity.
Lofing and Cluff have a couple of sound ideas in their favor. The Gallows is set mainly inside a Nebraska high school, in and around a cavernous auditorium after hours, in the dark. There’s something innately scary about the locale—the hopes and dreams of the stage colliding with the supernatural. The story concerns a fatally ill-advised revival of a play. Anyone who has endured an especially bad stage revival or two over the years may go into The Gallows screaming, as I did. Eighty minutes later I came out shrugging, but time and the opening weekend will tell how the target audience responds.
The movie begins as most found-footage horror movies begin: with found footage that has become forensic evidence. It’s 1993, in nondescript Beatrice, Nebraska. We’re watching camcorder tape of opening night of a play called The Gallows, which appears to be a gory variation on the thees-and-thous realm of The Crucible. The stage is dominated by a scaffold and a noose. “They did a great job on the gallows!” a voice behind the camera says.
One prop malfunction later there’s a dead young actor, a lot of screaming, and a jump cut to 2013. Despite sensible school board objections the drama department has decided to remount the play, this time with a star football player in the role of the boy to be hanged. Reese Mishler plays the fledgling actor, also named Reese; his co-star, a devoted drama student, is played by Pfeifer Brown. Belligerent, unsympathetic jock Ryan (Ryan Shoos) hatches a plan to break into the school at night and, with the help of Reese and Cassidy (Cassidy Erin Gifford, daughter of Kathie Lee and Frank Gifford), trash the set. The spectre with the noose has other plans.
Sample dialogue: “What the hell is going on?” Sample dialogue in your head: “And why the hell is the one with the camera still filming?” Such is the hurdle you must get over with every found-footage horror movie. Lofing and Cluff certainly know the found-footage ropes, and the tropes; we’ll see if their next project reveals a little more imagination. Each time we’re in the presence of the demon-ghost (there’s one in every high school drama department), The Gallows cranks up the predictable metallic KLAA-chonnnggg sound effects, to the point that you wonder: Is this the first film to be directed by the Law & Order gavel?
The cast is tiny, so that when you realize Lofing and Cluff are playing a game of And Then There Were None, it’s a pretty short game indeed. Brown fares best among a blandly characterized lot. Stupidly, The Gallows was given an R rating by the MPAA ratings board, though the activity is relatively bloodless. This, I suppose, is the MPAA’s way of making up for all the PG-13 blockbusters laden with violence deserving of an R.
The Gallows (R): ★★★ ✩ ✩