The Gallows (dir. Travis Cluff & Chris Lofing)

Posted: July 17, 2015 in Uncategorized

Found Footage horror films didn’t start off as lazy pieces of crap. “Cannibal Holocaust” (1980) is one of my favorite horror films, and it’s largely made up of faux “found footage” from a documentary gone wrong. The now-maligned “The Blair Witch Project” (1999) may now hold up very well, but when I first saw it I enjoyed it’s depiction of kids’ escalating panic as they are lost in the woods.  Then, a few years ago, there was a glut of these films invading our theaters. Some were good, and some were not. Lately, we’ve had films like “Unfriended”, which at least attempted to new, clever ways to present the genre to us.  While “Unfriended” wasn’t entirely successful as a film, it had some genuine cleverness to its form, if not its content.  Sadly, no one can claim “The Gallows” is clever.  It is lazy, derivative, jump-scare-filled crap.

The premise was promising, if they had chosen to make an 80s-style slasher film in stead of a quasi-supernatural movie.  In 1993 a high school drama club puts on a play called “The Gallows”, which seem vaguely inspired by “The Scarlet Letter” and “The Crucible”.  The main character was supposed to be played by one student, but they got sick, so a kid named Charlie (Jesse Cross), who was supposed to play the hangman, fills in.  During the hanging scene something goes wrong, and Charlie is actually hanged.

Cut to 20 years later.  An annoying kid named Ryan (Ryan Shoos…yes, like “Blair Witch” all of the characters’ first names are the same as the actors who play them) is filming behind-the-scenes footage for the drama club’s revival of this play at the high school.  Why would a school allow another staging of the play that lead to a student’s accidental death? I don’t know.  There’s a throwaway line about there having been arguments with the school board, but it strains credulity that a school, which is likely infamous from such an event, would want to invite bringing this up again.  Then again, this high school also has a trophy case in the hallway with relics from the original play, including programs and a cast photo. Later, when there’s a plot point involving the cast photo, it’s completely unbelievable that one character never looked at this photo before, having to pass it every day and all, or that a piece of revealed knowledge was heretofore unknown.  Also, why is Ryan even filming any of this?  The big issue with found footage films is that many of them never adequately explain why the participants would keep filming.  “The Gallows” is one of the worst offenders of this. When running, climbing ladders, committing crimes, or just being alone in their own bedrooms, there is no logical reason for them to keep filming anything.

Ryan has a girlfriend named Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford…Kathy Lee Gifford’s daughter) who is in no way believable as a high school student given her very obvious breast implants.  The film conspires to have her in a nearly transparent tank top with sweaty cleavage for most of her scenes, and it is ridiculous.  Ryan also has a friend named Reese (Reese Mishler), who was a former football player who quit the team to take the lead role in this new performance of the play.  The small problem is that he cannot act.  It’s soon revealed that he joined the drama club to be close to a girl he has a crush on, Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown).  Pfeifer seems to be queen of the drama club and is the lead actress in the play, and also seemed to spearhead the effort to get the play staged.

The day before the play is to be performed, Reese is worried that his shitty acting will ruin the play, and that Pfeifer will hate him forever. Ryan gets the bright idea to sneak into the school that night and dismantle the set so that the play cannot be performed, and then while Pfeifer is sad about this, Reese will be there to console her and have his in.  I think dismantling or destroying the set would merely postpone the play as opposed to delaying it (if a student’s death didn’t stop the new production, I doubt a little vandalism will), but Reese thinks this is a good idea and Ryan finds that a door to the school is broken and doesn’t lock, so they have their in.

The kids break into the school that night and begin hearing strange noises and stuff.  They soon find Pfeifer also in the school and the other three kids ‘plans are thwarted, but then the broken door is suddenly locked, as are all the other doors. Their cell phones don’t work, nor do the landlines in the school’s office. They’re trapped. Is it the ghost of Charlie?

Four main characters are not enough to sustain a who-will-die-next movie, so any hope of this being a cool slasher film disappears from there.  Honestly, since the villain in this film is pretty much a ghost, who occasionally takes corporeal form for no reason, there’s not real motive for why this ghost wastes time playing around with these kids when he could just kill them immediately. Yeah, the plot requires one of the kids to not be dispensed with as quickly as the others, but largely this ghost spends his time treading water when ample opportunity to kill presents itself, and there are seemingly no geographic or power limits to his strikes.

How this film got an R rating is beyond me.  There’s no R-rated swearing, the violence consists of some make-up showing rope burn on a neck and some bloodless, gore-less hanging.  My guess is the filmmakers were aiming for a PG-13 and the MPAA surprisingly gave it an R.  This film has all the markings of a lazy, unoriginal, uninspired, unscary PG-13 studio piece of garbage. The constant jump scares (without music) would scare only those under 13 anyway.  There’s no nudity, despite Cassidy’s ridiculous fake breasts and Pfeifer’s unnecessary push-up bra.

The found footage aspect hurts the movie.  There are many shots of feet, or nothing, or dark hallways.  The film won’t make you dizzy, but it’s visually boring.  That and, again, there is NO REASON FOR THESE CHARACTERS TO KEEP FILMING.  When they break into the school, I kept thinking of the line from “The Simpsons”: “Videotaping out crime spree is the best idea we’ve ever had.”  If this film had been made as a straight-forward slasher film with gore, nudity, and a larger cast to be disposed of, this could have been a decent, nostalgic throwback to the 80s.  The set-up for this film is right out of Slasher 101.  Instead, it seems like writer/directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing went with found footage out of budget necessity and not knowing how to pull off make-up effects. I’ve read that some CGI was added once Blumhouse and New Line picked the film up to smooth out the rough, no-budget practical effects, but otherwise this film looks like a lazy attempt at a resume builder by wannabe filmmakers of middling talent.

“The Gallows” is not scary, the characters are stupid and unlikeable, the set up could have been decent, but its failed by being shoehorned into a subgenre that does it no favors, the filmmakers fail at finding plausible reasons for the characters to keep filming, and the film constantly falls back on bad clichés (no signal) to justify its existence.

One last thing. If we are lead to believe that one character is who the film implies they are, they’d have to be at least 20 years old, and thus too old to be in high school.  Then again, it’s common for teens in horror movies to be played by 20-somethings. I dunno, just one of those things that irked me, like Scott Evil’s age not matching up with the date he was conceived in the film “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” (1999).  “The Gallows” represents everything wrong with studio horror today.  It’s a shame that films like this get a theatrical release on thousands of screens, but great horror films like “A Serbian Film” or “Martyrs” are confined to the dust bin of VOD. At least the great “It Follows” found its way to an American theatrical release, and it’s available on DVD and Blu-ray as you read this.

“The Gallows” gets points for premise, and not much else. At least it’s not the worst horror film I’ve seen all year.  That’s still “The Human Centipede 3”. D+

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