Old and older combine in this excruciatingly awful horror movie. The old is the found-footage format, which since “The Blair Witch Project” has become the most overused cliché in the genre. The other is the plot, which hearkens back to the slasher pictures of the eighties, in which some high school tragedy of decades ago resurfaces to threaten the students of today—think “Prom Night” and its many cousins. The mixture proves truly noxious in “The Gallows,” in which the lack of technique is exceeded only by the lack of imagination.
Back in 1993, we’re informed in an opening “amateur video,” a student named Charlie Grimelle (Jesse Cross) was hanged while performing in a “Crucible”-like play at the school, when the gallows on which his character ascended for a mock execution collapsed, leaving him dangling in the air for real. For some reason the drama teacher (Travis Cluff, also one of the two writer-directors) has decided it would be a good idea to remember the twentieth anniversary of the boy’s death by putting on the play again. Cast in Charlie’s old role is ex-football star Reese (Reese Mishler), who taken the part despite his obvious discomfort on stage out of infatuation with his perky co-star Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown). Filming the rehearsals is his jokester pal Ryan (Ryan Shoos), whose girlfriend is abrasive Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford).
The plot sickens when Ryan convinces Reese that, in order to avoid the embarrassment that will inevitably arise from a disastrous performance, they should break into the school auditorium the night before the premiere and destroy the set, making it impossible for the show to go on. Cassidy insists on coming along, and before long Pfeifer inexplicably turns up too. The quartet shortly finds itself locked into the building and being pursued by Charlie’s vengeful spirit. There is much running around in darkened hallways and spooky goings-on, like a VCR that plays despite having no video cassette in it. The power goes on and off, phones lose their service, and even a fire alarm—when the kids finally get around to sounding it—fails to function properly. Everything ends up in a “shocking” revelation indebted to that of the original “Friday the 13th” but making no sense whatever.
The movie doesn’t add up technically either: though supposedly the footage, “from police files,” was taken by the by the students (especially Ryan), the conceit isn’t consistently employed—there are plenty of times when though the images maintain their ragged hand-held look, it’s unclear who’s supposed to be aiming the camera, and the final scenes suddenly go very professional Of course the formula allows for lots of blurry on-the-run shots, moments when thing suddenly fall into darkness as batteries fail, and “selfies” in which menacing figures can abruptly appear in the background. There’s nothing in all this that hasn’t been employed in innumerable pictures of this sort, and by this point the impact is practically non-existent, though cameraman Edd Lukas manages it well enough. The same can be said of the loud bursts of noise and music that invariably occur at the would-be “gotcha!” moments; the score is by Zach Lemmon.
“The Gallows” does succeed at one thing, though it’s a negative one: making the characters such an obnoxious bunch that you don’t mind when any of them bite the dust. Motor-mouth Shoos is particularly irksome, but Gifford isn’t far behind. Mishler is meant to be the hero, but he’s a bland sort of hunk, and it’s not easy to understand his character’s interest in Pfeifer, whom Brown plays as a gratingly chirpy ingénue. One has to feel sorry for Price T. Morgan, who plays the nerdy stage manager that the insufferable Ryan torments at every turn. The on-screen Cluff is about as terrible as the off-screen one.
It appears, incidentally, that he and his writing-directing partner Chris Lofing are devoted theater geeks as well as slasher movie nerds; their first movie “Stage Fright” (with, one assumes, appropriate apologies to Hitchcock) was a slice-and-dice effort set at a musical theatre camp. One hopes that now having fulfilled their fanboy ambitions, they’ll quietly shuffle offstage and take up careers in some field in which they possess some talent. Filmmaking does not seem to fit that prescription.