My often child-like to the point of naiveté affection for cinematic terror has, aside from the recent flux of zombie pictures over the years, not been more tested by any of its sub-genres than that of Found Footage. Sixteen years ago it commenced on a high-note with 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, and has since brought us a few unexpected masterpieces such as 2009’s Paranormal Activity and the first two installments in the V/H/S/ series from 2012 and 2013 respectively. For the most part, Found Footage has stood idle in giving us rote tales of paranormal investigators who lock themselves over night into any variety of haunted houses or shutdown asylums with the mentality that: “As long as we end on a jolt it doesn’t matter how glacially slow the pace is, how familiar the plot is or that any character in the story is no different than those in any other Horror film.” The latest entry in this sub-genre, The Gallows (directed and written with an unusually artistic and believable eye by first time feature directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing), adds to this struggle because it seems every time I am fully prepared to declare that the plug needs to be pulled on these types of usually saccharin entries in the Horror genre a film comes along that, although nowhere near as potent as the aforementioned journeys into celluloid, shows that Found Footage still has enough life left in it to make my prior statement appear momentarily superfluous.
The Gallows, while clocking in at a smartly short and mostly tight 80 minutes, benefits mainly from giving us a high school stage in the small town of Beatrice, Nebraska and not another setting quite as contrived as the ones mentioned above. On its surface this easily appears as a rather mundane placement for a terror feature but, unlike many entries in Found Footage of late where people are filming when realistically such an act wouldn’t work out, we are blessed with a believable, and refreshingly unexhausted, backdrop where we can easily see bored parents shooting their child as they plow through their lines much as we have all witnessed at some point in our existence. This may sound like faint praise but it showcases how much a different location for your jump scares, overhead creaking by unseen and wraith-like figures and lockers opening and closing by themselves, along with some deft execution (pardon the pun for the death scenes are actually rather cleverly conceived), can raise the caliber of your scarefest from garden variety to worthwhile.
Sadly, the characters (especially Ryan Shoos, who in a manner to give this film more of a sense of actually being lost material, believably plays an endlessly obnoxious jock stereotype with his same first name) are all interchangeable from any of the others in most of these teenage ghost/ slasher ventures. Every personality comes straight from the Horror cliché handbook and, as expected as these events are, it holds the film back from being fully recommendation worthy. The actors are capable and well-chosen for what the serviceable script gives them, especially the shy Pfeifer Brown as Pfeifer Ross, but its ineffectual bulk of character development is limited until the twenty-five minute mark, so we mercifully don’t have to deal with too much of it before writer/ directors Cluff and Lofing give us nearly an hour of well-setup scenes that manage to build suspense well more often than not and induce a pace that rarely lets up once we hit this near half hour point.
The Gallows tells the tale of your usual assortment of popular jocks and stumbling intellectuals who appreciate art and drama finding themselves inadvertently locked in the theater where a production of the play The Gallows lead to an actual hanging in 1993. In an attempt to destroy the set so they don’t have to act in the play (we see here the loathsome individuals we are forced to suffer through in the name of Horror here from this statement alone) they enter through a door they believe is always unlocked and find that they cannot leave. Slowly, family secrets are unveiled as the spirit of the individual who refuses to leave, Charlie Grimile, enacts his vengeance on those who have invaded his stage. As you can easily surmise from this: the narrative is straightforward in telling and the way it is handled. On paper it sounds like it could end up being as tired as the paranormal investigators unveil real paranormal entities type sagas which have taken more than their turns with the sub-genre of Found Footage but, mercifully, this is not wholly the case.
All of this could’ve come off as nonsense if the cinematography wasn’t so crisp, believable for the format being used (some of it looks exactly like an old VHS recording from the early 90’s when the accident which propel the story in motion takes place), and the editing wasn’t so clean, far from the jumbled mess as far too many Found Footage films are, and if the movie wasn’t so competent at building a genuinely claustrophobic atmosphere with the idea of people shooting the events in the dark. One tremendous example of this would be a scene where a couple has to duck down through a set of vents with the camera pointing down and the vague notion that Charlie, who wears an effectively eerie looking leather satchel that is reminiscent of Jason Voorhees’ look in 1981’s Friday the 13th Part 2, will pop out in front of the camera at any given moment or any of the surprisingly artistic shots of The Gallows’ rope re-appearing after it had supposedly been torn down. These are all elements that should be of the utmost concern for individuals attempting to create a believable Found Footage work but, the idea of strength in such traits seems to be scoffed at in the name of dragging the pace out with the vague promise of terror and suspense which isn’t delivered until the final five minutes or so (another aspect The Gallows gets right by hardly giving us a chance to think of how clichéd some of the events are on-screen before another tense event occurs).
In true Horror film tradition, the movie has a final jolt end scene that is both atmospheric and refreshingly different given that most Found Footage films end with the last of the leads being dragged off by whatever ghost, ghoul, creature or crazed killer was after them as the camera drops. The Gallows avoids this and ends with something of a small twist that could’ve been trite in less capable hands but comes off as a fittingly uncanny finale. Cluff and Lofing prove apt at doing this even in long, ominous shots of hallways the leads must walk down where the darkness seems to house mysteries only the audience’s brain seems to be aware of. The Gallows may never rebuild the genre thematically but the directors prove almost Dario Argento-like in their abilities to give us otherwise exhausted scenes which seem strangely different and strikingly unique.
Still, The Gallows, as well done as it is, is mostly what its target audience would expect it to be. It gives you just enough of its deplorable characters to be happy that you don’t have to deal with too much more of their theatrics once the stabs at Horror commence and will prove worthy of a trip to the theater, when most Found Footage films aren’t even worth a rental, for those looking for a cinematic rollercoaster ride. The Gallows is an above average effort that is made all the more apparently wise and watchable by being so brief in its runtime, and the fact that the almost non-existent effects and lack of a score actually help maintain the on-screen intensity, and though it may not be remembered a year or so from now it will prove subtle enough to get the mind going when the end credits roll, suspenseful enough to be enjoyable and well-filmed, paced and acted enough for audiences to gladly overlook its routine characters and the rather stock story it has to tell (and the way it tells it). For those of us who adore the Horror genre, but have become weary of Found Footage, it should be enough to give you a brief flicker of faith in the sub-genre again. If that sounds like enough for you than you may be satisfied but not blown away, as I was, with your time spent with The Gallows.