Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on July 10, 2015, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.
The Gallows is aptly titled, as it demonstrates how filmmakers who have a perfectly serviceable idea can hang themselves with one fatally wrongheaded decision.
The premise is established in an effective-enough 1993-set prologue, in which we watch through a parental camcorder as a high-school play (also called The Gallows) goes horribly wrong, and Charlie, a teen actor who’s supposed to be “hanged,” ends up fatally dangling for real at the end of a rope. Why the noose is set up to actually work remains a mystery, but then this is a school that, as we find out when the story shifts to 20 years later, has for some reason decided to restage that ill-fated production. One of the actors involved is Reese (Reese Mishler), a football star who is venturing outside his comfort zone by taking part in this extracurricular activity, evidently motivated by the thing he’s got for his leading lady, ambitious young actress Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown).
These characters and scenario had possibilities that might have borne fruit if Reese had been the central protagonist. Instead, the story is told from the camera-toting, found-footage point of view of Ryan (Ryan Shoos), Reese’s jock friend and a completely insufferable jerk. The first half-hour or so of The Gallows consists of Ryan taunting and berating Reese for doing the play, physically abusing the other “drama geeks,” making fun of girls’ looks and generally behaving like a complete jackhole. Why writer/directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing decided to have this douchebag be our point of identification is beyond reason or belief, and it makes the first act, which should be about building up identification and sympathy for the soon-to-be-terrorized characters, into a real turnoff.
Perhaps the idea was to make Ryan that guy whose comeuppance we hanker for once the supernatural comes into play, but that doesn’t work because he dominates too much of the early screen time, and nobody else in the film is especially likable. Reese proves to be a spineless waffler who gets buddy-whipped by Ryan into sneaking into the school after hours, to vandalize the set so the show can’t go on. Joined by Ryan’s annoying cheerleader girlfriend Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford, daughter of Frank and Kathie Lee), they slip in through an unlocked back door and indulge in some pretty half-hearted damage, only to discover after a little while that—bwah-hah-hah!—they can’t get out. Pfeifer becomes trapped with them when she shows up claiming to have followed them inside, though anyone who’s seen more than a couple of movies like this will figure out what she’s really doing there very early on.
Producer Jason Blum and his Blumhouse Productions only came aboard The Gallows after it was well into production, but the movie bears all the exhausted earmarks of Paranormal Activity and its faux-documentary ilk. There’s the all-too-familiar shaky running through dark rooms and hallways, ominous hum on the soundtrack and characters suddenly getting yanked into the air by unseen forces, and the staging and timing of the scares is so rote as to be predictable by now. Once in a while, there’s a jolt or tense moment that connects, but they’re outnumbered by the annoying fake scares and generic spookery, and the best scene has already been spoiled by the movie’s advertising campaign.
The Gallows additionally seems confused on a basic level about the source of its horrors, unable to decide whether the evil is the ghost of the unfortunate Charlie or some other creature haunting the place. There are a couple of twists as the movie grinds its way toward its conclusion, both of which suggest that these kids are resoundingly clueless about their own and each others’ parentage. When the final “surprise” is sprung, you might be left frustrated that it doesn’t make any sense in the context of what we’ve seen before. You might consider that the filmmakers could have dramatically benefitted from exploring this wrinkle in more depth earlier in the narrative rather than saving it for a last-minute gotcha. Or you might just be relieved, despite the less-than-90-minute running time, that the movie is finally over.