The Gallows (2015)

First published by TheHorrorShow

In 1993, amateur footage videotaped by a parent at a school production of a play (‘The Gallows’) captures the male lead, Charlie Grimille, being hanged on stage in a freak accident. Cut to 2013, and Beatrice High School is, in a move that makes no sense at all, restaging ‘The Gallows” for the twentieth anniversary of this disaster. All-round assclown Ryan (Ryan Shoos) films the rehearsals while trying to persuade his best friend Reese (Reese Mishler) to quit playing thespian and return to the school football team. Reese has been cast in the same rôle that led to Charlie’s untimely death, and is keen to continue because of his soft spot for leading lady Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown). On the night before the première, Ryan convinces Reese to join him in trashing the set and sabotaging the play, with Ryan’s girlfriend Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford) along for the ride. Shortly after they run into Pfeifer, the teenagers find themselves locked into the school building, and apparently not alone.

The fact that, at the beginning of Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing’s The Gallows, Ryan’s footage is presented as ‘police evidence’ clearly foreshadows both that there is a crime coming, and that the film is to conform to the conventions of ‘found footage’. It also suffers many of that subgenre’s shortcomings. Ryan, Reese and Cassidy are already committing several crimes – breaking and entering, wilful damage to property – which might make you wonder why they would be so willing to risk incriminating themselves by further filming their own actions. It also goes without saying that once the spookiness starts and their lives are clearly in peril, their continuing to record is even more improbable. All this filming seems to be more for our sake as viewers than for the kids with the cameras (and camera phones). The only residual benefit to come of all this contrivance is the sense that events are being scripted and directed (indeed, Cluff cameos as the play’s director) – and that these hapless teenagers are unwittingly being cast in rôles for a very particular audience. For the very best thing about The Gallows, suggested by the way the film and the play-within-the-film share their title, is its strange confusion of an old artificial medium with a newer one. All this world’s a stage – shot in hi-def – and all the men and women merely players in an irrational revenger’s tragedy.

By the time The Gallows has reached its grim dénouement, film, play and stage have collapsed into one another in uncannily disorienting fashion – but this brings me to the other big problem with The Gallows. Like so many ‘found footage’ films, the arresting start and reality-challenging end are left in search of their middle – a sort of narrative black hole filled with much aimless scurrying about, Scooby Doo-style sleuthing, putting down and picking up of cameras, fretting in the dark, and snot-nosed weeping into the lens (à la The Blair Witch Project). Even at a mere 81 minutes, The Gallows feels overstretched and padded out with the sort of regular jump shocks and loud noises off that have come to signify a slickly bland brand of scariness in today’s commercial horror. This would have been so much more effective as a short film, with less flab around the centre. Still, once the noose has tightened, you will feel the tension.

Anton Bitel