When Paranomal Activity took the world by storm in 2009, it proved that movies didn’t need big budgets or outrageous FX to be scary. Ironically, in true Hollywood-fickle fashion, producers suddenly seemed to think that this new minimalist style was all you had to have, and the “found footage” genre (launched in the modern era with The Blair Witch Project) soon began to overtake bigger, production-heavy horror. But the problem with found footage is there’s only so much you can (or, more appropriately, can’t) show that hasn’t already been seen (or not seen, again, as the case may be) before.
Case in point: The Gallows (produced in part, by Jason Blum, who also worked on Paranormal Activity).
While it adds an interesting, urban legend slant of a storyline, The Gallows remains another ninety-minute, first-person, home movie-style amalgamation of jump scares, shaky-cam sprints, and arguing teens. Haunted objects move on their own, VCRs (Google it kids) play video despite tapes, and a ghostly killer who can go from zero to sixty photobombs all of the fledgling (and incredibly obnoxious) videographer’s footage…usually before attacking whoever may be in the frame at the time.
It’s a story of a haunted high school, plagued by unexplained phenomena since the early 90’s when a drama student died in a freak accident during a stage production of a revolutionary-period drama entitled (you guessed it) ‘The Gallows.’ As the film opens, we watch along with the stunned audience (through the lens of a recording HandyCam) as male lead Charlie Grimmile (Jesse Cross) dies in a hangman’s noose when a set malfunctions. Nearly twenty-five years later, the school has finally come to grips with the tragedy, and at the request of student (and aspiring actress) Pfeiffer Ross (Pfeiffer Brown), the drama department has agreed to resurrect ‘The Gallows’ because the show must, after all, go on.
Jock Reese Houser (Reese Mishler) lands the lead male role in the revival, hoping to win Pfeiffer’s favor, despite the fact that his acting is horrible and he really isn’t enthused about being in the play. His toolbag of a friend, Ryan Shoos (Ryan Shoos!) is assigned videographer for the production and films every facet of the production. Ryan soon deduces Reese’s feelings for Pfieffer and knows of his apathy towards the show. He contrives a plan to vandalize the set, which will shut down the opening and (by some strange sense of reasoning) lead an assuredly distraught Pfeiffer to the solace of Reese’s waiting arms. Reese reluctantly agrees; he and Ryan break into the school after hours and are quickly joined by Ryan’s girlfriend Cassidy Spilker (Cassidy Gifford).
As the group begins to trash the props, Pfeiffer unexpectedly arrives, saying she’d seen Reese’s car in the parking lot as she drove by. He feeds her a bogus story to keep her unaware of their true intentions. Meanwhile, Ryan notices that the noose he’d ripped from the set is now hanging from the gallows once more. He goes to tell the others who are about to leave…until they discover than none of the doors in the school will open. They wind their way to the basement, where they discover a television playing a videotaped news story that aired right after Charlie’s death—though the tape itself isn’t in the VCR. It recounts that Charlie, who was originally supposed to play the hangman, had stepped into the lead role when the original star got sick. When Reese recognizes that face in the broadcast, he runs to a hallway trophy case that still prominently features a memorial photo of the original play and takes a closer look at the players. And discovers a haunting secret about the student who’d been cast to play the lead….
But Charlie’s ghost barely gives him a second to process it all before he’s tearing through the hallways after them, now back his hangman costume and ready to recreate the role he was born—and died—to play.
There’s little in the way of faith lessons to be found in The Gallows. It tries hard to extol the oft-used “sins of the father” allegory, but (without giving too much away) it just never makes a solid case. The characters are never fleshed out beyond their role as navigators to the scares. Like poor Charlie in the noose, we wait for the floor to drop, and we do get left hanging—but without the same breathtaking ferocity of his five-minutes-in demise. To its credit, there is a fun twist at the end—but it’s not sufficiently developed nor powerful enough to pull the rest of the story together. It’s good for a few scares (one noose-kill steals the show), but just doesn’t hold the same depth as the standouts of the same genre.
If you’re looking for wickedly good found footage films, swing past The Gallows and pick up Paranormal Activity or Cloverfield. They’ll make you gasp without choking in the process.