Written and Directed by: Travis Cluff, Chris Lofing
Starring: Reese Mishler, Pfeifer Brown, Ryan Shoos
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Every school has its spirit.
Between Unfriended and now The Gallows, it was only a matter of time until the found footage aesthetic truly intersected with the slasher film. Despite their seeming incompatibility (there’s a reason nobody wants a found footage Friday the 13th sequel), the two have been destined to meet, if only because history has proven that this is how horror filmmaking often works. Sometimes—as was the case with Unfriended—it results in a pretty clever riff on a familiar theme; sometimes—as is the case with The Gallows—it plays out as predictably and blandly as can be expected when two tired trends collide without much inspiration guiding them.
The Gallows particularly feels like its taken its cue from the late-era slasher movies that dispensed with any pretense of pleasant characters or story. This is the set-‘em-up-and-knock-‘em-down slasher ethos, right down to the prologue* that takes audiences back in time to establish the mythos surrounding an ill-fated high school production that tragically climaxed with lead actor Charlie Grimille's death during an accident involving a rigged noose. Two decades later, the current drama class has decided to stage a revival, a decision that seems tactless until you realize the sort of set we’re dealing with here.
Our cameraman, Ryan (Ryan Shoos), is introduced ridiculing his classmates and spends much of the first fifteen minutes picking on poor stagehands and giving hid buddy Reese (Reese Houser) shit for bailing on football for a wussy drama class. Before we see his face—which looks like it was plucked from an Abercrombie catalogue specializing in millennial jock douches—he’s pummeled a poor kid in the face with a football and revealed himself to be generally unpleasant. So when he proposes that he and Reese break into the school after hours to sabotage the play (in the hopes of sparing his buddy certain embarrassment), I could only root for Charlie’s vengeful spirit to start playing hangman post-haste.
Mercifully, it does, as one of the biggest strengths here is the breakneck pacing. With an 81 minute runtime, The Gallows has no time to futz around: once the group of kids (two girls—Cassidy Spilker and Pfeiffer Ross—join the guys to make the body count juicier) enter the school, the film sets itself to leading them (and, by proxy, the audience) through the usual haunted house parlor tricks—a locker door slowly opens on its own, the dismantled stage is mysteriously repaired, all of the doors are suddenly locked (with the exception of those Charlie wants them to open, naturally). A sparse paper trail unfolds, one that leads to about two significant plot developments including a climactic twist, but it’s threaded through some sinister imagery, such as the grainy VHS footage documenting Charlie’s death.
As a found footage film, The Gallows gives the impression of a team dutifully executing a time-worn playbook. Innovation is hardly a priority, as the film is more concerned with dashing through the motions and hitting the beats expected of it. Entire scenes feel mandated at this point, especially one that has a tearful girl’s face crowding the frame before she’s dragged away by an unseen entity. For all its familiarity, this stuff at least well-sequenced and isn’t crafted too haphazardly: there’s a sense of pacing and dread, with tension lying behind every pan and tilt that kept me invested despite not caring much for a group of characters that remains largely irredeemable throughout. Slasher mythologies tend to overshadow the victims, and this set doesn’t escape that fate: this is Charlie’s world, and they’re just here to die in it.
If only they could do so in spectacular fashion. The Gallows might be a moderately effective found footage exercise, but it struggles to incorporate the basic thrills expected from the slasher genre. Conspicuous by its absence is almost any sort of gore; while history has occasionally proven splatter isn’t always a necessity, it’s fair to note that it takes a major accomplishment like Black Christmas or Halloween to pull that off. Suffice it to say, The Gallows is not in that sort of company, even if its attempt to thrive on suspense seems admirable in theory. In practice, it feels more misguided since the film almost immediately invites you to delight in watching Charlie off these kids; by denying the audience that (or any kind of novelty), it's simply transported the cheap chair-jumpers and shaky night-vision footage of recent years to a school setting.
The Gallows leaves me wondering if I don’t feel for found footage movies what audiences must have felt for slashers by the late 80s: sure, it’s a viable aesthetic and a well-crafted one should land regardless of the familiarity, but I can’t help but feel a little tired of it. Maybe timing is important when a film arrives in the shadow of so many predecessors: had The Gallows been released at the forefront of this trend, it might have felt a little more vital. That it whiffs on revitalizing the technique by melding it with the slasher genre is especially disappointing and perhaps confirms the two aren’t meant to mix at feature length (the "Tuesday the 17th" segment from V/H/S does provide a short film blueprint, at least).
In Charlie, it has conjured up a cool enough slasher villain: he has a distinguishable appearance, a clever hook, and all of the film’s most indelible shots feature him—if only he were in an actual slasher movie, he might be in a position to assume the mantle the marketing has claimed for him. After this first outing, it’s fair to say that Charlie’s noose is a little too limp to be discussed in the company of Jason’s machete or Freddy’s glove. If he returns, I hope a sequel takes a Book of Shadows route that allows him to slip the noose of the found footage aesthetic: the irony of hoping that a pure slasher movie might shake the doldrums of another tired genre is not lost on me, but here we are.
*Truly, the most unsettling thing about The Gallows is the revelation that our "20 years ago" slasher prologues now occur in the 90s. That sound you hear is your creeping mortality.
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