The Gallows (2015)
87 min., rated R.
Anyone can shoot a mock-verité horror film in the found-footage style and throw things in front of the camera for a jolt, but not everyone can make a skillfully wrought, anxiety-inducing experience with effectively mounted dread. That takes talent, and even sometimes natural performances and competent writing and cinematography. Writer-directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing show glimmers of peanuts-budgeted effectiveness for their first big-time effort, "The Gallows," but must have a lot of luck on their side, having their film picked up by Jason Blum and his Blumhouse Productions before being sold to Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema and being given a wide theatrical release. Riding on the coattails of everything after 1999's "The Blair Witch Project," "The Gallows" tries all it knows to make the viewer flinch once the eerie goings-on actually take off. It didn't have to aim to win any prizes for originality, but the execution of a long-in-the-tooth scare mold is only very average.
On October 29th, 1993, a tragedy rocked the Nebraskan town of Beatrice on the night of a high school production of a play called "The Gallows," which led to the accidental hanging of teenage actor Charlie Grimm. Twenty years later, Beatrice High School's (unsuperstitious) drama department morbidly decides to put on a revival of the same play, using the same costumes, props, and even the same programs. Being berated by his camera-holding pal Ryan (Ryan Shoos) for joining the theater geeks, football player Reese (Reese Mishler) takes on the role once portrayed by Charlie to get closer to his crush, stage partner Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown). On the eve of the play's opening night, Ryan convinces Reese to sneak into the school overnight through a broken stage door and sabotage the set and props, so the show can be canceled and Reese's reputation can be saved. With Ryan's cheerleader girlfriend Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford) tagging along and Pfeifer showing up to their surprise, the four teens find themselves locked in the dark school. All they can really do is wait each of their turns to die at the hands of the ghostly, hangman-masked, noose-wielding Charlie.
On the upside for slasher fans, "The Gallows" does set up a scarily fun situation—kids stupidly locking themselves in a school at night before getting taken out—that one could have seen this being more in the tradition of an '80s-style slasher film were it conventionally shot. Now, shaky POV camerawork can work when there's a feasible setup for a camera to be used and to keep rolling, but beyond using the aesthetic as a cost-saver and all of the footage purportedly being actual police evidence, this film fails that test. Necessary for the premise to work within the rules of the found-footage conceit, the characters must make rookie mistakes, and they sure do, but in fairness, these are inexperienced teenagers we're talking about. The bigger problem is that it's hard to become attached to any of the archetypal characters, who are all fair game for Charlie. Worst of all, the viewer gets stuck with an obnoxious dude-bro of a videographer in the form of Ryan, who can't die off fast enough. And, before one picks at why none of these kids just call for help, the use of cell phones (or lack thereof) is not made a frustrating oversight, as Charlie can apparently control cell service and lock one's phone in a locker.
Making its way from being tedious to irksome to just disposable, "The Gallows" still has its occasional merits. When the teens go snooping around, finding a dark corridor that leads to a '90s newscast mysteriously playing on a TV in a janitor room, the film starts to work up some fear and atmosphere. There is one quiet, apprehensive sequence where Ryan crawls through a maintenance space, followed by a chillingly subtle shot in the dark rafters where he's unable to make out what is dangling from a rope. A climactic chase through a catwalk is even creepy in a cover-your-eyes sort of way. Also, even though it's been criminally featured in the film's TV spots, a would-be respite for Cassidy, crying and cowering in an emergency red-hewed hallway and unaware of the hangman emerging from the darkness before she uses a camera phone to look closely at the severe bruise of an attempted strangulation on her neck, is indisputably the film's most menacing, gasp-worthy doozy. In between these moments of the lingering threat that Charlie could pop out at any given moment, the only suspense left is waiting for the next ear-splitting noise. After all, the business-as-usual pattern of the characters walking down hallways, running for their lives and then finding momentary relief before it starts all over again eventually becomes tiresome.
The prologue's freak accident, captured in 1993 on Charlie's parents' camcorder, is startling but the inclusion of a music score lessens the impact and the you-are-there immediacy. Despite the untested, unknown actors using their real names (one of them, Cassidy Gifford, is actually Kathie Lee Gifford's daughter), "The Gallows" won't trick anyone into thinking it's real, like "The Blair Witch Project" did. The performances are merely functional. The pesky camera-shaking is authentically incompetent enough, but it's the equivalent of watching your grandmother figure out how to use an iPhone, complete with plenty of shots of the floor and the characters' feet. Filmmakers Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing do cap everything off with a fairly disturbing twist, but if you stop to scrutinize, the less sense it makes. Collectively, though, there just isn't enough ingenuity in its shocks for "The Gallows" to be The Next Big Thing in this already-played-out horror sub-genre. Cluff and Lofing, better luck next time.