The found-footage/POV sub-genre of horror films, like the teen slasher movies of the 1970s-80s, will not fade away quietly. The “Paranormal Activity” franchise, which has sustained the strongest run in this structure of scary movies, has at least one more round to go. And while the found-footage/POV type of coverage has been used to explore spooky wooded areas (“The Blair Witch Project”), the crumbling of security in homes of middle-class families (“Paranormal Activity” series) and even witnessing the destruction of New York (“Cloverfield”), there seem to be other places it can crop up.
For its nerve-wracking story, “The Gallows” takes place in a venue that for some people was horrifying in real life — high school.
Co-written and co-directed by Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing, “The Gallows” also revisits a site that has been used before to spark jitters — an empty theater auditorium.
In 1993, a prop malfunction during a small-town high school’s stage production of a play titled “The Gallows” results in the tragic death of a student, Charlie, playing one of the lead roles. Now two decades later, as part of a tribute to the boy, the high school is about to stage that same play again.
The first 30 minutes of the movie are devoted to introducing and developing the main characters. Naturally the key person needs to be the one who constantly has to visually record everything, and fulfilling that role is Reese (Reese Mishler), by far the most obnoxious videographer ever depicted in this type of movie. His school work seems to be secondary to his obsessive need to have a his camera recording everything. He disrespects the drama department’s efforts at putting on the play, and he bullies the nerdy Stage Boy (Price T. Morgan).
Reese particularly channels his disdain toward Ryan (Ryan Shoos), picked to play the lead role that the doomed Charlie took on in 1993. Ryan has quit the football team to devote his energies toward “The Gallows,” but in rehearsals he is atrocious. Reese suspects that Ryan is only participating in the play to win the affections of Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown), the student playing the lead female role and the person who has been the driving force behind getting this play on stage.
Also on the periphery of all this is Reese’s gilrfriend Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford), one of the cheerleaders.
When Reese discovers that one of the back doors to the theater building is broken and cannot be locked, he hatches a plan he sees as a way of preventing Ryan from humiliating himself in the play. Reese proposes that they break into the theater later that night and destroy the props on the stage, thus forcing the play to be cancelled. He manages to talk the reluctant Ryan into going through with this by suggesting that Ryan could then comfort a distressed Pfeifer when she learns the play has been grounded.
The Cluff/Lofing writing team deserves kudos for coming up with this premise. It provides a plausible reason for these young people to sneak into the theater other than nonsensical mischief.
When the students finally arrive at the school at night, the tension level ratchets up. What makes or breaks movies of this type is how effectively the scary moments are delivered, along with the revelation of what is behind all of this terror.
Unfortunately, “The Gallows” at this point could be any other found-footage movie with its almost nausea-inducing shaky camera work that adds nothing new when it comes to the frightening moments. The standards are there: doors slamming and now locked, mysterious sounds of footsteps, shadows lurking, items suddenly disappearing, and dark, creepy rooms filled with clutter that produce scream-inducing imagery.
Much like “The Blair Witch Project,” the filmmakers present an ending that leaves the audience guessing as to what is really going on. This is a plus for “The Gallows” after the usual tiresome exercise of young people running around finding there is no escape.
“The Gallows” employs the gimmick of using the actors’ real names as their character names. This was done initially in “The Blair Witch Project’ as the marketing strategy of pretending Heather (Donohue), Josh (Leonard) and Michael (Williams) were not actors but real people who actually disappeared. Now, 16 years later, this is a device that is laughable.
Aside from the irritating behavior of Reese, so grating you might actually root for his demise, the rest of the characters, especially the young ladies, are barely memorable. This movie desperately needs some quiet moments like the dialogue of the three characters in “Blair Witch Project” that made viewers, if not totally liking them, at least identifying with them in certain situations.