Film Review – The Gallows
It’s said that every movie is something of a miracle, and in a way that’s true. With all the problems to overcome – financially, artistically, collaboratively – there’s a lot of obstacles preventing a story from making it on screen. For every one that’s made, there’s a dozen or so that get derailed. In that way, The Gallows (2015) should be commended. IMDb.com says it was independently funded by people who had never worked in the industry before, many of whom were friends of writer/director team Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing. They deserve credit for getting their film made and picked up for distribution, that’s something a lot of people can’t claim. Unfortunately, what ended up on screen does little to provoke our enthusiasm.
In terms of craft, this hand held/found footage horror trip is exactly what we’ve seen before, but done less convincingly. At worst, it amplifies what detractors of the subgenre complain about: unnecessary camera shaking, jump scares and fake outs without any real fear or tension. Here’s another opportunity for us to discuss the difference between “suspense” and “surprise.” “Suspense” is built through atmosphere, danger, and a connection with the characters. “Surprise” is achieved by simply flashing something in front of the camera (accompanied by a loud sound effect) to startle the audience. When jump scares are used too often it throws away the tension because of how cheap and easy it is. Maybe it’s due to the limited budget, but the approach here relied way too heavily on the latter. The constant camera shaking tries to create fear out of nothing, instead leaving us with sore eyes.
Twenty years ago, a high school in a small town put on a play that involved a hanging, hence the title. As you can suspect, a terrible tragedy happened during the performance that became part of local legend. Fast-forward to the present, and the school’s drama program has decided to resurrect the play in honor of that event’s anniversary.
Wait a minute. So, you’re meaning to tell me that the school is going to put the play back on even though it was the basis for one of the worst tragedies in the town’s history? What principal gave that ok? Wouldn’t the citizens be disturbed at how negligent and disrespectful the idea is? I guess thinking about that would require common sense, which doesn’t come in abundance ‘round these parts.
It would be easy to disregard the silliness of the play if the main characters weren’t so incredibly absent minded. Reese (Reese Houser) and Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown) are the leading actors, but Reese’s best friend Ryan (Ryan Shoos) thinks the whole thing is stupid and a waste of time. Together with Ryan’s girlfriend Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford), Ryan convinces Reese to sneak into the auditorium late at night to destroy the set, with Pfeifer eventually tagging along. Four teenagers, a dark and empty school…you know bad things are about to go down.
The performances of the four main leads are…well…less than convincing. The actors are all relatively new; doing the best they can with what they have. The writing does not help them out. Each of the characters make dumb mistakes again and again. Even when escape is clearly within grasp, they make a grievous error that sends them right back into danger. The artificiality of the performances is amplified when it’s noticeable that they’re playing toward the camera. In one scene, a character – distraught over recent horrific events – crawls toward the camera, picks it up, and points it to her face for no reason than to establish a close up. It doesn’t build her character in anyway; she’s taking the video equivalent of a selfie.
The worst is easily the Ryan character. I felt bad for the actor; they had to play what maybe one of the worst people in a horror film I’ve seen in recent years. And to top it off: he’s the one holding the camera the majority of the time! Ryan is a bullying, misogynistic, arrogant jerk. He picks on anyone and everyone he can with his nonstop, smart-ass remarks. Ryan walks around with no respect for his classmates, teachers, or the play. Just thinking about the guy gets me aggravated. I wonder how much of a pushover Reese is for having Ryan as a best friend, or how Cassidy could ever keep him as a boyfriend. Fifteen minutes in and I was already hoping Ryan would kick the bucket.
I’m glad that Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing were able to overcome the challenges I’m sure they faced with this project. But The Gallows misfires in both the writing and use of clichéd horror movie tricks. The audience I saw this with knew just about every scare that was going to happen. Near the end, there were audible chuckles, not nervous laughter from fear but as an indicator of how bad an impression this made. There’s a lot of good horror movies out there, I’m afraid this isn’t one of them.