“The Gallows”

20 years after a horrific accident during a small town school play, students at the school resurrect the failed show in a misguided attempt to honor the anniversary of the tragedy – but soon discover that some things are better left alone…

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Cast
Reese Mishler as Reese Houser
Cassidy Gifford as Cassidy Spilker
Ryan Shoos as Ryan Shoos
Pfeifer Brown as Pfeifer Ross
Alexis Schneider as Mary
Price T. Morgan as Stage Boy

Directed and Written By: Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing
Producer: Jason Blum

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F_8OKImO2pc

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In 1993, a Nebraska high school put on The Gallows, a play about love and crime in colonial America. The production of the play came to a tragic end when a prop malfunction causes the accidental death of lead actor Charles Grimille. Twenty years later, the school’s drama class has revived the play, but the new lead actor Reese is lacking in self-confidence; he’s having problems learning his lines, his best friend Ryan picks on him for having a crush on the play’s female lead Pfiefer, and his father insists he quit the play. When Ryan suggests that the pair, along with Ryan’s girlfriend Cassidy, break into the high school the night before the play and tear down the gallows to prevent the show from going on, Reese haltingly agrees. It turns out, however, that someone or something insists the play go on. The gallows are rebuilt by an unseen force. The doors and windows leading out of the school are locked tight. And in the background, waiting for his moment, stands a hangman and his noose…

Made for an incredibly low budget of $100,000, The Gallows is another feature served up by Blumhouse Productions, who brought movie goers Paranormal Activity, The Purge, Insidious, Oculus, and Sinister, along with the Oscar winning Whiplash. Directed by newcomers Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing, The Gallows doesn’t set out to rewrite the found-footage genre or attempt anything truly fresh or original. Instead, it gives us a standard, straight-forward horror movie. There’s nothing truly new under the sun here, but the movie gives viewers some solid jump scares and a sense of tension that builds throughout the movie.

Found-footage movies tend to utilize the same conventions – a lot of running, a lot of energy-draining lighting from cameras and cell phones, and a lot of “pan the camera away, pan it back, oh look there’s something there.” The Gallows does include these conventions, but they tend to be very well done. Cluff and Lofing’s choice of setting for the film is a great one, as anyone who’s been in a high school after dark knows it’s pretty damn creepy, where all the bright lights and chatty teenagers are replaced by long shadows and dead silence. Forgotten storage rooms, empty corridors stretching into the distance, maintenance tunnels, an empty locker room, and the claustrophobia of the backstage area, on the ground and in the rafters are used to good effect. The use of cell phones as light sources is a strong narrative choice, as one of the cliches in found-footage movies are people not dropping the camera and fleeing for their lives. Cell phones are small, hand held, and cause tension when they finally start running out of power, which was refreshing to see in a found footage movie. The plot also makes sense which is refreshing to see in a horror movie with a supernatural being. It’s very cut and dry, and horror vets can see the denouement coming a mile away, but it still comes together nicely.

The directing was solid as well. I found the first 20-25 minutes or so a bit boring, but the directors established the four main characters as well as dropping the necessary hints about Charlie and how strange things happen in the school’s theater all the time. Once the characters get to the school and start tearing down the gallows is when the movie begins to push forward. There’s never enough light to see very far, so any sound such as creaking boards or the static of a television is going to raise a few hairs. The darkness also allows for some nice fade in shots. The scene in the movie’s poster, for example, reminded me very much of Michael coming into frame near the end of Halloween when the full version was played out on screen. Everything else however tends to fall into standard horror movies cliches; people leave each other alone when they really shouldn’t, one character simply has a mental breakdown and becomes nearly useless, and the jump scares are predictable, although there are one or two that will stand out depending on a viewer’s taste. Overall, this is a fine first effort from Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing, one that shows potential for their future projects.

The cast…well, either it was some very bad acting, or some very realistic acting for teenagers, and I tend to lean towards the latter. The four leads fall into the standard tropes; the popular guy with a soft heart, the drama nerd, the jerk jock, and his cheerleader girlfriend. They’re fine in their roles, but really just run through the horror movie motions as they try to escape, scream a lot, and one of them makes the ultimate sacrifice. The moments that Charlie is on screen are the true character moments. Viewers rarely get a full-on glimpse of him. He’s either cloaked in shadow, blurred out to the camera, or is seen for a split second, his hangman’s mask threatening to burst out of the screen. He’s not a killer so much as he’s a vengeful force of nature (apparently with the power to teleport and summon ropes and nooses when the moment arises), and the movie relies more on the threat of Charlie than Charlie himself, even when the kills are occurring on-screen.

While obviously the directors could only do so much with a small budget, there felt like there was a much bigger story that could have been told. A play where a teenage dies is being revived twenty years later? Where are the protests? The arguments with the school board? The reason (plot aside) for choosing to put on this particular play once again? These scenes might not have been able to be shot, but some exposition on the revival would have been nice.

Cobi’s Synopsis – The Gallows doesn’t reinvent the found-footage movie, but it doesn’t need to. After a slow start, this film kicks into gear and doesn’t let up until the final shot, overall giving viewers a serviceable horror flick with a few choice scares.

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About cobiwann

A guy who's into a niche fandom of a niche fandom - the Big Finish audio plays of "Doctor Who." Also into the show itself, both old and new, plus pop culture and a smattering of human insight.
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