Every time a found footage film is released, critics are quick to proclaim either the death or the rejuvenation of the medium. The fact of the matter is that found footage is now an inextricably entwined facet of horror like zombies and slashers, so these proclamations are entirely meaningless. Found footage isn’t going anywhere. All we can do is hope that it’s done well, just like every other type of horror movie. There are bad zombie movies. There are bad slasher movies. And, like THE GALLOWS, there are bad found footage movies.
I wanted THE GALLOWS to be good. I really wanted it to be good. The ingredients are all there: bratty high school kids running amok; dark, creepy, Halloween-decorated school halls; a decent-enough ending “twist.” The problem with THE GALLOWS is in its execution (sorry, pun intended). Writer/directors Travis Cluff & Chris Lofing’s hearts were in the right place, but it’s a complete mess. The film begins in 1993 with audience footage of a school play, The Gallows. Thanks to painfully on-the-nose narrative spoon-feeding (a common theme of THE GALLOWS), it’s clear the camera holders are the male lead’s parents. A prop malfunction leads to his live hanging, which isn’t by any means a bad premise, but whatever sense of eeriness this scene has is ruined by the obnoxious exposition going on behind the camera as the parents of Charlie Grimille loudly whisper about how well their boy is doing, despite being a stand-in. Trust me, THE GALLOWS is going to treat you like an idiot. Considering its R-rating, you’d think that THE GALLOWS wouldn’t be geared toward imbecilic 14-year olds, but you’d be wrong.
We jump forward 20 years, and Beatrice High School is once again putting on a production of The Gallows – I know believability is already out the window here, because no institution would ever, ever allow such a thing (the weak justification is a meager “we can finally finish it”), but bear with me, it gets worse. Our protagonists are Reese, Ryan, Cassidy, & a “drama geek” named Pfeifer. Reese & Ryan are football players, and Cassidy, Ryan’s girlfriend, is a cheerleader. As is too often in found footage, the first 20-or-so minutes are excruciating. Our cameraman Ryan is the over-actor of the century, & that he’s playing a boorish, “geek”-bullying jock stereotype only makes things worse. In fact, the film’s initial moments spend so much time sloshing around in the jock-versus-nerd trope that towards its conclusion, I grew hopeful that the film’s events were merely a massive prank orchestrated by said “drama geeks.” Alas, I was instead let down for the umpteenth time. Now, I’m going to ruin this movie for you, because frankly, you shouldn’t see it. That would encourage a sequel, which would be a crime. So, SPOILERS AHEAD.
Now, our heart-throbby main character, Reese, is set to play the same role that Charlie played 20 years before, despite best friend Ryan’s objections based on how “lame” or whatever theater is and how bad of an actor Reese is (which is true on multiple levels). He is set to act opposite the goody-two-shoes Pfeifer, who is stereotypically modeled after the girl that reminds the teacher they forgot to collect the homework. As it turns out, Reese “like-likes” Pfeifer, and that’s why he took the role. Okay, so far, so bad. Now, it’s Ryan’s job in this drama class (which is mandatory or something?) to film all of the behind the scenes action, so at least our “why is this being filmed?” question is answered, albeit lazily. Ryan interviews (sarcastically, for some reason – I mean it, this kid was written horrifically) parents that are volunteering to help with sets & costumes about what happened 20 years ago. He points out a pale, dark-eyed, disheveled woman sitting in the back row, and says something along the lines of “I don’t know if she’s a parent.” Can you feel my eyes rolling into the back of my head? It doesn’t get more predictable than this. Next, Ryan finds a door leading outside from backstage that doesn’t latch, and comes up with the bright idea to come back at night, ruin the set, and save his buddy from total embarrassment. As the resident “dumb blonde” (who is actually the best actress in the film), Cassidy is “totally down,” and they convince Reese it’s his best option. So they return to the school at night, which is thankfully immensely unnerving, and begin breaking lights and disassembling the gallows. After a few cheap noise-scares, the group bumps into Pfeifer in the halls, everyone screams, and she explains that she saw Reese’s car in the lot and came in to see why he was there……did you catch that? How stupid do these writers think we are? Anyway, yada-yada-yada, the four of them realize they’re now locked inside with no cellular service ooooohhh-aahhhhhhh and that “something’s going on.” So they explore and undergo a couple of cliché jump-scares before Reese figures out and then spoon-feeds to us that, “wait, oh no, my dad was the one who called in sick 20 years ago making Charlie take his place.” Okay, fine. So Ryan & Cassidy die. Cassidy’s death scene is probably the film’s best scene, but was also the first trailer released for the film and serves as its poster. Way to go, guys.
Things are close to the end when Reese realizes that what’s happening is gee-golly sure starting to look like the end of the play itself, in which the male lead gives himself up to the noose to spare his blushing lover. So, by chance, they end up on stage in the same general positioning, recite their lines (yeah), Reese walks up to the gallows, and puts his head in the noose. Pfeifer keeps playing her part even though Reese is adamant she can leave now, yelling at her to run, and this is when we’re supposed to go “OH BABY SHE WAS IN ON IT WOWWWOWW!” So through static in the camera (the writers really didn’t want to commit either way to Charlie having a body or being incorporeal), we see Charlie pull the lever, hang Reese, and then join Pfeifer hand-in-invisible-hand for a bow. A single light illuminates the audience, and who is there applauding? You guessed it – the creepy lady from the beginning. She was Charlie’s girlfriend, and Pfeifer is their daughter. Woof. Then, just to pour salt in it all, there’s a coda where Charlie hangs some cops, too. I am not going to honor this scene with an explanation. It’s just downright offensive.
If found footage was going to die anytime soon, THE GALLOWS would’ve killed it. I could’ve sympathized if it were rated PG-13 and marketed as a date movie for prepubescents, but it wasn’t. Hell, they even marketed Charlie as a new Jason or Michael Myers. If I were John Carpenter, I would try to sue for that. I am only glad this movie exists so future found footage directors can use it as a template of what not to do. I implore you not to waste your time. Just watch THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT again. It’s still genius.