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The Gallows | Review

MacDeath: All the World’s a Grave in Stilted Found Footage Horror

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It seems we’ve yet to hit the bottom of the found footage barrel, at least if the new studio backed PG-13 teen scream title The Gallows is any indication. Director Travis Cluff reunites with Chris Lofling, the editor of his 2012 family film Gold Fools, to co-write and direct this obnoxious entry managing to be more adolescent than its terrorized subjects. With vapid drudgery, a quartet of unpleasant juveniles struggle to survive the haunted halls of their high school, while audiences are required to check logic and comprehension at the plot synopsis in order to sustain the running time. Nonsensical and laborious, this is a horridly designed, cheaply assembled outfit only managing to offer up proof as to why found footage horror is not the sensible alternative to churning out low overhead cinema.

In 1993, tragedy strikes a high school production of a play called The Gallows when a student is accidentally hanged, caught on video by a parent. Twenty years later, the material is being remounted by the establishment. However, there seems to very little unease concerning the play’s troubled history, with most of the tension generated between the theater kids being forced to share their class and experience with the meathead jocks, now required to take theater. The chief instigator of conflict is Ryan (Ryan Shoos), apparently assigned or allowed to catch every living, breathing moment on film as an additional ‘document’ of the play. Except Ryan isn’t very appropriate or kind, and we’re privy to any number of abuses and gross critiques of his theater peers. We learn one of his football buddies, Reese (Reese Houser), dropped off the team to take the lead in the play, instigated by his secret feelings for the lead actress, Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown). Only, Reese isn’t very good at the craft and has trouble memorizing his lines. In an effort to sabotage the production, Ryan convinces his cheerleader girlfriend Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford) and Reese to sneak into the school and wreck the set the night before the premiere. However, the ghost of the production’s past seems to have an alternative program in mind.

Ryan and his vapid blonde girlfriend are exactly the kind of miserable jackasses we love to see granted a necessary comeuppance in these types of ventures, and their blind hatred for anything not involved in their limited worldview is perhaps a titch reminiscent of the John Travolta/Nancy Allen duo from something like Carrie. Except the inevitable, systematic events transpiring make this feel like one of those B-grade Jamie Lee Curtis pictures rolled out in a succession during the early 80s, like Prom Night (1980) or Terror Train (1980), but this time with a sickening whirl of cell phone footage spliced together in jumbled chaos.

The film’s more sympathetic figures are hardly arresting, though Cluff and Lofling try desperately to tie a bit of convenient context to the ill-fated tragedy and the particular teens involved in the resurgence (as if we couldn’t have guessed this on any number of smirking occasions immediately after the film begins).

But the distracting idiocy of what The Gallows is predicated upon makes this a grating undertaking. Why these doofy teens insist on filming (or letting themselves be filmed) in an act of vandalism seems inane. Sure, these are privileged white folks, but no one bats an eye at the specter of consequences. And in what first world nation would any school think it’s a good idea to reproduce a play requiring a hangman’s noose to be placed onto a teenager’s neck, much less when a previous production already claimed a life?

For a film exploring the tradition of ‘cursed’ theater productions, the screenwriters could have chosen something much more persuasive. Worse, the camera continues to roll after deaths begin, and we even get alternate perspectives for off-screen moments of tension (which the film fails to generate, resorting to cheap scares, such as having Shoos, while filming himself, finding it necessary to jump in front of the camera). As cheaply as this probably was to make, The Gallows is worthless cinema, simply a cinematic spider web meant to catch the teenagers too young to go anywhere else but the movie theater on opening weekend.

½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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