'The Gallows': Film Review

The Gallows Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The Gallows Still - H 2015

Fails to generate any suspense.

This low-budget teen horror movie about a jinxed high-school play is told in the popular "found footage" style.

Once there was a certain novelty to horror films in the “found footage” mode, supposedly shot with amateur video cameras rather than professional equipment. The Blair Witch Project launched the trend, and since then we’ve seen Cloverfield, the Paranormal Activity franchise and many other examples. So The Gallows is not going to win any prizes for originality. Any film that tries to revive this technique needs a clever story or unusual filmmaking ingenuity to stand out from the crowd. The Gallows has neither. It has enough mild scares to captivate the under-25 crowd, and the budget was obviously bargain basement. So Warners can’t lose money on this release.

First-time filmmakers Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff present most of this story as if it had been caught on cellphones, though they actually shot with a variety of cameras designed to have the right grainy look. Anyone prone to vertigo should avoid the film, since the dizzying handheld shots, mainly in very dark rooms, are not exactly a pleasure to watch.

The story itself is not unpromising. Twenty years ago, during a high school production of a play called “The Gallows,” a freak accident led to the young lead actor being killed onstage. Now, for rather unconvincing reasons, the school decides to mount this jinxed production again. But someone is clearly seeking revenge for what happened 20 years earlier.

This revenge plot kicks in when three popular high school kids decide to sneak into the school auditorium on the night before the premiere to destroy the set. Their plans go awry when they are trapped in a locked auditorium with all phone lines down. A fourth student, the lead actress in the play, also joins them as they seek to escape from an unseen visitor who seems determined to wipe them out, one by one.

Since the kids’ decision to sabotage the production seems to have been a last-minute whim, it’s hard to believe that all of the mayhem could have been so well orchestrated, unless a supernatural force is at work. Even granting that possibility, there are too many plot holes. And the deliberately slipshod camera style limits the possibility of terror. A couple of shots are suitably creepy, like a shadowy figure, noose in hand, slowly sneaking up on the head cheerleader. The effective sound design by Brandon Jones does compensate for the visual monotony, but this can only go so far in scaring viewers.

There’s also a problem in terms of audience identification. Two of the kids — the videographer Ryan (Ryan Shoos) and the cheerleader Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford) — are insensitive, fairly hateful teens in the mold of those who tormented poor Carrie (in arguably the best teen horror movie ever made) 40 years ago, so we don’t care about them when they are attacked. The other two are more sympathetic, but they turn out to have unexpected connections to the original castmembers from 20 years ago.

The lead actors, who all have the same first names as the characters they play, are appealing, but we can’t quite judge their talent on the basis of these one-dimensional roles. Similarly, the filmmakers might do better if offered a bigger budget, but it’s hard to make any confident predictions based on this cheesy offering.

Production company: New Line Cinema, Blumhouse
Cast: Reese Mishler, Pfeifer Brown, Ryan Shoos, Cassidy Gifford, Travis Cluff, Price Morgan

Director-screenwriters: Chris Lofing, Travis Cluff
Producers: Jason Blum, Guymon Casady, Dean Schnider, Benjamin Forkner, Chris Lofing, Travis Cluff
Executve producers: Dave Neustadter, Walter Hamada, Couper Samuelson, Brad Jacobson, Steven Imhoff, Steven Hrdlicka, Debbie Hrdlicka
Director of photography: Edd Lukas
Production designer: Stephanie Hass
Costume designer: Nicki Stewart Jessica Peter
Editor: Chris Lofing
Music: Zach Lemmon, 10K Islands
Sound designer: Brandon Jones

Rated R, 80 minutes