In 1999, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT came onto the scene with an inventive found footage documentary style to evoke some genuine scares and revolutionized the horror genre. Turning this style into more of a gimmick, many have come and gone to lesser acclaim, until PARANORMAL ACTIVITY in 2009. I consider these two films among the best of the genre. THE GALLOWS gluttonously consumes from these films and spews out a putrid incoherent, inconsistent mess that reeks of everything bad in horror films. The scariest thing about THE GALLOWS is how it murders this now overused genre and makes the 84 minute runtime feel like an eternity.
THE GALLOWS is the name of a 1993 high school play. On opening night of the production, old footage from a parent’s recording captures the final moments of the show. Two adults can be heard talking about how this is pretty good considering the lead guy is the understudy. When the lead character steps onto the set to be executed by hanging, the trap door slips open and the young student actor accidentally hangs to his death in real life. Twenty years later, the clearly incompetent school board has strangely been convinced to finally allow the play that tragically killed a student to be performed once again.
For some odd reason the unlikable, overly stereotyped bully of the school, named Ryan (Ryan Shoos), loves carrying around a camera recording every possible moment for him to ridicule or undermine. For the majority of the film the audience is forced into the body of an unfunny, hateful punk. Ryan being our eyes and ears is perhaps the most frustratingly poor decision that writer/director Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing could possibly bestow upon their audience. Ryan convinces his cheerleader girlfriend Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford – daughter of Kathie Lee Gifford) and his best friend Reese (Reese Mishler) an ex-football player turned struggling lead actor of the show (and struggling actor within the film), to tear down the set so they will have to cancel the play. The school has a conveniently placed back door that never locks and everyone knows about – so perfectly explained by a random student who will not be seen again. This is the biggest stretch of the film yet as no school knowingly leaves doors open or unlocked overnight in the present date, but I digress. The lead actress of the play shows up wondering what’s going on when some “spooky” stuff begins to happen – locked doors, no phone service, secret doors, rebuilt sets and moved objects to name a few.
The only thing I knew about THE GALLOWS was a brief trailer that shows audience members screaming in the theater. This common tactic can be effective, proving the film to be frightening without giving away any of the scares. After watching THE GALLOWS, I imagine the footage used for the trailer was simply during an early scene where a kid suddenly jumps in front of the camera. This tactic is the lowest and cheapest form of thrills as anyone can stand behind a corner and wait for someone to walk by before jumping out and saying “Boo.” Unfortunately, THE GALLOWS does not know how to even get that right. Lingering far too long on empty spaces, on the actors shoes, or on unnecessary prop devices (I’m looking at you 1983 cast picture), are just a few examples of the poor use of the cameras. The motivations, actions and dialogue from each characters make no sense as they visually check locked doors only to loudly proclaim them locked. Every scare is telegraphed visually then reinforced verbally, boring the audience into submission until they don’t even care about the “jump out” moment they are suppose to be anticipating.
It’s exhausting to try to explain everything that is wrong with THE GALLOWS, so I’ll now move on to what was good.