15 – 81mins – 2015
“You’re choking worse than Charlie did.”
20 years after a tragic mid-show prop malfunction sees student Charlie Grimille hanged in front of a horrified auditorium of pupils and parents, a Nebraska High School makes the dubiously macabre decision to restage their production of the eponymous theatrical work – complete with “replica playbills!”
After a rambling horror-free opening half hour which achieves little more than establishing some horrendously clichéd jocks and nerds (“You’re a cheerleader who likes to do other girl-dance stuff.” Urgh) excitedly preparing the set and rehearsing their lines, detestable dick videographer Ryan (Ryan Shoos) persuades the nervous leading man – and his best bud – Reese (Reese Mishler) to break into the school the night before curtains up to sabotage the set, thus postponing the play and saving his less-than-competent friend’s blushes.
Roping in Ryan’s girlfriend, Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford), the vandalisation gets off to a routine start, until they run into the goody-goody leading lady – and Reese’s secret crush – Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown) and things take a turn for the inexplicable. The frightened foursome discover they are trapped in the school with no means of contacting the outside world and in the company of a seemingly vengeful spirit who puts the dram in am-dram…
A multitude of convenient stock contrivances are established so to isolate the terrified teens (unlockable doors suddenly being locked, reliable mobile phones suddenly can’t find a signal, lights go out thus necessitating the use of a nightvision app), while you seriously question why even someone as thoughtless, shortsighted and arrogant as Ryan would so dutifully capture their crime and subsequent supernatural stalking on film – especially on the camera the school provided him!
The region 2 cover blurb boasts The Gallows as a “revolution” of the horror genre, but this is simply another formulaic found-footage compilation of police-confiscated evidence in the vein of Cloverfield, [REC] and – most iconically – The Blair Witch Project. Like the renowned 1999 docu-horror trailblazer, auteur duo Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing’s debut feature also favours psychological tension and the power of what you don’t see, and the film is all the better when that is the case.
Sadly, as the nightmare wears on and the cam gets ever-more shaky, in an effort to up-the-ante they perhaps show a little too much spectral shenanigans. The effectively creepy twist ending would have been masterful if presented as the sole rationale for the madness, but when coupled with the supernatural aspect, it makes for a confusing hodgepodge of elements as if the makers didn’t have complete confidence in the effectiveness of a more believable explanation and feared they needed to give the horror hounds more bang for their buck.
Speaking of bang for your buck, the blu-ray edition comes complete with what is in essence a second feature – The Gallows: Original Version – which is the complete film the indie makers originally shot, guerrilla-style, to tempt Hollywood production companies to invest in their vision. I am extremely interested in checking out how this budget rough cut ‘first draft’ compares to the Blumhouse-backed final product, and will give it a spin when the twists, turns and jump-scares aren’t quite so fresh in my memory.