When Paranormal Activity was released in theatres back in 2009, it marked the beginning of an era of supernatural horror. Franchises like Saw died off and we replaced all of the torture porn with ghost stories, 79% of which came from Blumhouse productions. We’ve seen a wide variety of ghosts in this time, between soul-sucking demons, to ouija-board spirits, to skype session spooks, and it honestly feels like the bottom of the barrel is being scraped by the time we get to the ghosts within every high school theatre. Personally, I’m not really all that into the whole paranormal genre, for two big reasons. First, I find it hard to feel genuinely frightened about something that doesn’t have a physical presence in our world. Moving around objects in a room can create an unsettling mood, but it’s hard to sell me on a movie that’s just that and jump scares. Second, I don’t really believe in the whole ghost thing in the first place. There was a self-proclaimed psychic that performed before the screening that I saw this film at, and while it was impressive how quickly she answered the question of if she could see dead dogs (yes), it was hard for me to take her seriously when she said that she was “sensing the spirit of someone whose name starts with an R”.
We start The Gallows with a home recording of a high school production of… The Gallows. I looked it up, and there’s no play out there called The Gallows, but all you need to know is that there’s a guy named August that they want to hang. Anyway, it’s one of the worst, most boring instances of high school theatre imaginable, until the actor playing August accidentally dies on stage due to a prop malfunction. Twenty years later, for some absolutely unimaginable reason, this same high school wants to honor the anniversary of this incident by putting up another production of The Gallows. This clues us in pretty quickly that The Gallows isn’t all that interested in logic, which is a good thing to recognize pretty quickly, because if you hadn’t already, you are now given explicit permission by the filmmakers to not take the film too seriously.
So we see a rehearsal for the revival production of The Gallows, and it’s just as cringey, if not more cringey, than the performance twenty years prior. It’s at this point we are introduced to our four main characters, who must all be punished for being unreasonably attractive for high school students. Ryan, who holds the camera for most of the film, is potentially one of the most annoying characters ever put to screen. You know how no matter what, someone talking while holding a camera sounds extremely obnoxious? Well imagine that, only coupled with the fact that everything that comes out of their mouth is hypocritical, overeager, and misogynistic. That’s Ryan. He’s a Football player who has to help out with tech for The Gallows. He has a stereotypical cheerleader girlfriend named Cassidy, and his best friend, Reese, is starring in the production as August. Reese quit football to be in the play, but his lack of experience hurts his ability as a performer. He has a big crush on Pfeifer, the girl that he’s starring with, who is the absolute stereotype of a theatre person. Ryan convinces his girlfriend and Reese to come to the high school after dark to destroy the set, and we have our plot.
While all of the characters are different levels of annoying, at least they act extremely genuine on camera. The Gallows is a found footage movie, and while the acting in these types of films is often very stilted, everyone in this movie, from lead to background actor, is incredibly naturalistic in their performance. Of course, there are more than several instances during the film where it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever for anyone to be holding a camera, but I don’t think that this film would have worked without the found footage vibe. The shaky cam, like it or not, really adds to the effect, much more than a camera with smooth movements would. This is not the film for meticulously crafted shots with brilliant lighting. Not that The Gallows really revitalizes found footage in any way whatsoever, but the stylistic choice just works really well for this movie.
Okay, so the whole ghost in the theatre premise is pretty stupid, but it’s also kind of hysterical, and really lends itself very nicely to creating a fun atmosphere for watching the movie. From a horror perspective, a theatre is actually kind of a perfect setting. There are no windows, so there’s always a sense of isolation and captivity present. The general layout of a theatre makes sense, but there’s a bunch of secret doors and hallways, so you’re always sort of disoriented, but never alienated by the film. There’s also a bunch of foreign props and cables all around, and that stuff is always creepy.
The Gallows also works surprisingly well because although the villain is technically a ghost, he has a sort of physical presence that presents a real sense of danger for the characters. He also doesn’t screw around with the way he attacks his victims. There’s no, “Oh, I’m gonna slowly drain your soul and demolish your personality.” Everytime he wants someone dead, they die quickly and dramatically. The film almost blurs the lines between being a supernatural and a slasher horror film.
With only four main characters, The Gallows ends up being really short. It’s only 81 minutes long, which is far under the average run-time for a movie, and I actually kind of like that aspect to it. The movie doesn’t devise ways to waste time or drag on the film, it just gets in and gets out. A solid amount of screentime with four somewhat undeveloped characters is still better than watching 23 six-line characters get murdered to death. The film is tight, and doesn’t leave you with much of an opportunity to get bored.
In fact, this movie fooled me into thinking that it was just gonna be some crappy horror film with no effort put into it. Although the script does lack any true sense of logic, it’s obvious that it went through several revisions to create some interesting moments. Everything that happens in the film serves some sort of purpose to the story, which is just awesome to see, because that’s not always the case for horror films, a genre that has a reputation of being cheap and exploitative. There was some really nice reintegration near the end of the film. I don’t mean reintegration where the filmmakers shove metaphors and motifs down your throat throughout the whole film, I mean a moment where a small detail that you thought nothing of was brought back to make a significant impact on the film’s story. There was even a cool ‘Left vs. Right’ moral dilemma in the movie that really caught me off guard. These things don’t make the movie brilliant, but they show that some effort was there.
The Gallows is super campy, and never really gets scary past a couple decent jump scares, but it’s pretty enjoyable. It falls into a lot of the same horror film tropes, but it executes them with competence and limited style. The story doesn’t really make a lot of sense, and the more you think about it, the more infuriating it becomes, but that doesn’t prevent the movie from being an entertaining watch. It doesn’t do anything revolutionary, and it has very short shelf life, but it’s far from a negative or a boring experience. 5/10.