When I saw the trailer for The Gallows I was totally stoked, bro. I mean, here was a horror movie that looked like it was doin’ it right, yeah? Most trailers these days for horror movies show way too much, yo. But this one? Duuuude. Just that one, long, lingerin’ shot of the girl sittin’ on the floor cryin’, dude? In blood-red lightin’? With that long-ass corridor stretching out behind her to the left, and then THAT GUY WITH THE NOOSE appearin’ out of the dark on the right like that? DUUUDE. I got the creeps just sittin’ there waitin’ for the film I’d paid to see to come on. This The Gallows looked like the shiiiit.
And that trailer certainly is very effective. It gives very little away, other than the promise of some high wire suspense and darker-than-your-average thrills. And in fairness The Gallows achieves both of these from time to time. But trailers that don’t show you too much are a double-edged sword. I love the idea of a trailer that intrigues and gets me curious about a movie, but sometimes you have to wonder what’s being left out. And why. If you’re aiming to hold back your biggest surprises, fine. But what about if there are important things about the film that the producers or distributors would simply rather you didn’t know…
First off – and this wasn’t overly clear from the trailer (and I realise in hindsight I was putting a lot of faith in that trailer) – The Gallows is a ‘found footage’ horror film. What I had assumed was some Irreversible style low-angle set-up is actually just one scene in a typically messy, shaky, altogether implausible home video howler. And not the You’ve Been Framed kind. Now, ‘found footage’ horror seemed to have reached the end of its, err, rope, several years ago. For better or worse the creativity of the V/H/S series may be to blame for its perpetuation. That or the simple fact that it’s cheap to do and, in the right hands, pretty effective. Nevertheless, there’s a glut of it, and I don’t think anyone’s been crying out for any more. Regardless, The Gallows adds to the list of entries, suggesting itself to be police evidence.
Secondly, and I’m afraid far more importantly, quarantining the trailer to one key suspenseful scene doesn’t prepare you for how bad the acting and dialogue is here. There’s something pretty ironic in that, seeing as the story of The Gallows centres around an ill-fated high school amateur dramatics production. Following a brief prologue, the main body of the film opens during rehearsals, so its easy to give these initial scenes the benefit of the doubt. But when the kids leave the stage and start interacting it becomes apparent that the cast genuinely aren’t quite up to snuff. Either that or there’s some wonky inverse version of the method going on here.
Chiefly there are four core players. Reese played by Reese Mishler, Pfeifer played by Pfeifer Brown, Ryan played by Ryan Shoos (see a pattern emerging here?) and Cassidy played by (wait for it…) Cassidy Gifford. Now, I’m not suggesting that this cast weren’t able to function with the complex idea of fictional character names, and who knows, maybe it helps in the spur of the moment to stop fluffed lines, but there’s a warning flag being waved right there, right? Right?
Anyway, Ryan is the one wielding the camera for the most part, busting a gut trying to win some kind of prize for least-likeable, most-obnoxious documentarian in high school history. His jock friend Reese is in the school play; a phenomenally poor-taste production of, hey, ‘The Gallows’. Why poor-taste? Well, you see the last time this school tried to mount a production, back in ’93, the titular prop malfunctioned and a kid called Charlie lost his life (seriously, why would they re-stage this, even 22 years later?). Ryan can’t figure Reese’s motive for doing the play, until he cottons on to his friend’s crush on leading lady Pfeifer. Regardless, they decide to break into the school at night to sabotage the set so that Reese doesn’t have to go through with it. Ryan’s girlfriend Cassidy joins in, seemingly so that Ryan’s wandering camera can dangle in front of some clammy cleavage every so often.
Before long, however, spooky events start building up. Pfeifer appears at the school mysteriously and then all the exits are found to be inexplicably locked. Rattled, the kids explore the creepy dark of the stage and surrounding rooms looking for a way out as the vengeful spirit of Charlie starts coming after them.
Battling their own deficiencies and a riotously clunky script from directing duo Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing, the four principles ride it out through a mixed bag of spooky set-ups, some of which – to give the film due credit – are pretty effective. Cluff & Lofing are clearly genre fans. They understand how ‘found footage’ films work, and they evidently have their favourites. When it comes to the dynamics of the film and the ability to conjure up a little suspense and dread (those bloody whip-pans) Cluff & Lofing have the requisite skills. And in Charlie they have the bones of a genuinely quite unnerving new horror villain. But there are unavoidable weaknesses here for which Cluff & Lofing are chiefly to blame.
Dude, seriously, dude, etc, etc. Do high school kids really talk like that all of the time? Even in the US? And if the cliché stoner-speak wasn’t heavy-handed enough then the constant signposting eclipses it for grinding irritation. If there’s a visual element smartly (or even lazily) slotted into a scene you can be damned sure one of the leads is going to comment clearly on its presence. Y’know. Just in case you didn’t get it. This kind of spoon-feeding verges on patronising. And undoes the film a fair bit.
Frustratingly, there’s an infinitely better movie within The Gallows screaming to get out. With more refined material and some smarter casting choices, I fully believe Cluff & Lofing might’ve been able to manifest that movie. Instead we’ve got a bit of a clunker on our hands, one whose best scene is in the trailer. Hell, it is the trailer.
Maybe next time, yeah?