The found-footage aesthetic has been hit from nearly every angle over the past decade. While its roots can be traced back far further than early cinematic outings like Peeping Tom,1 the recent boom was undeniably spawned out of the widestream availability of low-cost, high-quality digital cameras. This has brought a number of unconventional takes on the genre like Aaron Scott Moorhead & Justin Benson’s Resolution,2 Unfriended, and the recent, and brilliant, Creep. Unfortunately, The Gallows sits firmly on the conventional side of the genre. It’s the latest (and hopefully last) in a line of cheapo-horror flicks which bring nothing new to the genre; films that aim to make big bucks on their opening weekend before the negative hype sets in.3 It’s the business model that Jason Blum has based much of his Blumhouse Productions group around, and it seems to still be working; The Gallows – a film that doesn’t even remotely require a found-footage aesthetic, one that squanders occasional glimmers of hope with relentless jump-scares, unlikeable characters, lazy editing, and a failure to commit fully to its found-footage conceit – managed to bring in $14 mil in its opening week from a $100,000 budget despite woeful critical reception.
The film follows school-bully and all around unlikeable character Ryan (Ryan Shoos) as he documents the lead up to a school production of “The Gallows”,4 a play that resulted in the accidental hanging of a student 20 years prior. Ex-football player Reese (Reese Mishler) has volunteered to star in the production in a bid to impress Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown), the school drama nerd, but unfortunately Reese can’t act. As a result, Ryan and his girlfriend Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford) devise a plan to break into the school and trash the set with Reese in a bid to prevent the play from going ahead. Pfeifer encounters them in the act, but before she can escalate things the four teens are stalked by a silent force, unable to escape the school due to plot convenience. Mix in zero tension, a few unintentional laughs, and a tonne of cheap, uniform jump-scares and you have yourself The Gallows, another Blumhouse feature that should have gone straight to VOD.
I could attack The Gallows solely on the basis of its ridiculous conceit (there is no school in the world that would re-stage a production that resulted in the death of a student), or the fact that the villain has no real motivation (although the film sure wants to tell you that they have one),5 however that would be too easy, and ignores the major flaw so many entries into the mainstream teen/horror flicks of the last decade or so suffer from. The film’s greatest problems don’t lie in its silly premise,6 its major problem lies in the fact that none of the characters are remotely likeable – something that no film should suffer from unless intentional,7 as writing people who aren’t totally irredeemable arseholes costs absolutely nothing. It’s a cost-free way to make it easier for audiences to connect with your dumb, trashy horror flick with little to offer, so they don’t spend half the film checking the time on their phones, but The Gallows couldn’t even give us that.
The issues don’t stop there, with directing duo Travis Cluff & Chris Lofing other egregious error a failure to stick to their found-footage conceit. First off, there is no real exposition behind why we are being shown this footage; it attempts a Cloverfield style “police document” conceit but this fails to account for cuts, edits, and time loss,8 as the camera is supposedly on the entire time. Why would the police ever edit this footage? It would make sense to keep all of the footage on file and even if they were editing footage to only show the “important” parts, there is so much unnecessary filler here that should have been cut, and way too many missing moments. Secondly, there are a number of found-footage goofs that wouldn’t exist if this footage were legitimate – we have characters filming themselves over the shoulders of others so we can follow the action, we have low battery signs appear on recorded footage, and, without giving too much away, we have a finale sequence that is supposed to be shot on a police body-cam that goofs by visually establishing the character that is supposedly wearing it. If you’re not even going to stick to the necessary tropes of a found-footage film, why create one? This film would have lost nothing as a conventional horror film, and may have even played better as Cluff & Lofing wouldn’t have been tied to their half-hearted attempts to conform to a specific aesthetic; it may have even led to some more interesting set-ups and pay-offs.
To completely write this film off would be unfair; while it’s tedious opening 20 or so minutes did it no favours, when all the pieces began to fall into place as our horrific conceit was established toward the end of the first act, The Gallows did become, decidedly, more fun – albeit briefly. There were glimmers of hope, a hint at a light at the end of the tunnel, an inference that the film was about to become aware of what it was and play with the notion. However, it was not to be, the film quickly reverted back to a soulless by-the-numbers schlock outing. To be fair, while it’s a minimal effort outing overall, the effort is there. I’m not sure Cluff & Lofing were intending to make an objectively bad film, they seem to have just stumbled into one. While it’s nice to see Blumhouse productions pushing the boundaries of found-footage with their other investments,9 this is another conventional horror film that should have laid dormant. The Gallows offers nothing new, and what it does, it does poorly.
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