Ever since The Blair Witch Project it seems like all it takes to become a horror auteur is a video camera, a shaky hand and a cocktail napkin to write your script on. Found footage has been the here and now in the business going on fifteen years, and for every interesting take on the subgenre like the original Paranormal Activity, there are seemingly countless sad sack cash grabs, such as all of the Paranormal Activity sequels. The reason is simple enough; Horror pays the bills. These films are cheap as heck to make and people turn out in droves for them. Even if they don’t cash in at the box office, they’re sure to make it up in streaming rentals. Another subgenre of horror that, if done well, can reap fantastical rewards, is the masked psycho thriller franchise. Think Freddie, Jason and Michael Myers. Each of these films probably boasts one or two truly inspired offerings, but they’ve all churned out countless terrible money-making sequels and continue to do so even to this day. Despite the obvious rewards awaiting anyone willing to try, to my knowledge (and I am unwilling to do any research to back up this claim whatsoever) no one has ever tried to combine an original masked psycho killer franchise and the found footage phenomena…until now. The question is, can the Gallows break new ground in horror with its handi-cam meets hangman thriller?
The Gallows tells the story of four teens that sneak into their high school in the middle of the night to sabotage the school drama production of a play called-naturally-The Gallows. As a result of their mischief they unleash the violent spirit of a former student who was tragically killed during a performance of the play 20 years before. As the terror unfolds it becomes apparent that the gallows hangman, Charlie, has a personal reason to torment these would-be saboteurs. What could it be? Fortunately, the kids brought plenty of cameras and smart phones along to document their folly.
Let me start by saying that it’s probably not a good idea to commit to a running joke about how bad of an actor one of the students in your movie’s theatre performance is while stocking your movie entirely with terrible actors. And no, I don’t buy that this is a wink to the audience or some sort of Meta garbage. These are clearly just four good looking, inexperienced young people who appear to have been given the worst possible material to work with and absolutely zero direction. From the snarky a-hole who spends most of the film behind the main camera to the overzealous drama girl, these characters are one dimensional stereotypes of people you’d never like enough to care about whether they died or not.
Apart from that, it takes a special lack of awareness to feature a villain whose weapon is a noose. A noose! I’m far the most politically correct individual you’re going to meet walking down the street, but even I know that a noose is a dog-whistle for outrage in our current society. Maybe people will talk about it? No such thing as bad publicity? Who knows? And from a purely logistical standpoint a noose is just silly as far as weapons go. Stay still, idiot! I’m trying to hang you! Good thing for this killer, these kids are genuine morons.
The set-up is implausible beyond comprehension. The impetus for the after-hours foray into the school is absurd. And the idea that any high school would stage a production of a play where a kid died just 20 years ago-and acknowledge the fact openly!- is hard enough to believe, but the idea of a dream world high school where all of the students, including athletes and cheerleaders, are required to take part in a theatre production is just downright insulting. Is that a thing? I don’t think that’s a thing. These examples are only the tip of the unbelievable iceberg, but to give away more would spoil the suspense. Seriously, I don’t even want to attempt to get into the killer’s motivation. Just no.
I’m not going to pretend that The Gallows didn’t make me jump and squirm a few times, but it’s not hard to elicit that response. Those responses are natural human reactions, but I’ll give the film due credit for a couple of genuinely creepy set pieces. Perhaps the film’s greatest saving grace, however, would be a clever use of overlapping footage that manages to be compelling and fills in gaps in perspective surprisingly well. In a film with little technical or artistic merit, this bit of production flair stands out.
All in all, from a found footage perspective, The Gallows makes you want to go find the Blair Witch people and slap them silly for doing this to everyone. And from the masked psycho killer standpoint, let’s just say I don’t think this franchise is ever going to make it into ‘da hood’ or deep space anywhere down the line. But The Gallows will make some money, because it cost $12 to produce and as long as two people see it, The Gallowswill be a success. If you spend money to watch this fiasco, that’s your prerogative, but you only have yourself to blame for The Gallows 2: Electric Boogaloo. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
By Steve Hanning – Former MovieFloss writer