Each summer brings a smattering of scary movies to ostensibly break up the monotony of blockbusters and super-hero sequels, but rarely are they immune to their own brand of sameness. The Gallows is the latest to blandly combine low-budget horror with a found-footage approach, in hopes of selling the fading novelty to the uninitiated, to die-hard horror fans, or to unsuspecting viewers looking for a break from the usual box-office fare.
The film’s title ostensibly comes from the name of a high-school play staged 20 years ago that ended with one of the actors being killed in a freak onstage accident: Instead of being hanged accidentally, the gallows’ noose contraption failed, and the student (Charles Grimille) died for real. To honor his memory, the school decides to resurrect the play. A few students decide to sabotage the production by sneaking into the theater at night to destroy the set, but they get mysteriously locked in by a disturbed spirit, and an evening of creepy hallways, spooky sounds, frantic yelling, and blurry shadows ensues.
The four main actors play characters with their same first names, supposedly as a way to ground the film in realism. But they instead come off as facsimiles of teenagers and hew precisely to type while remaining a few degrees removed from plausible. The jock, Ryan, is a childish, obnoxious jerk; the jock’s girlfriend, Cassidy, is a pretty, down-for-whatever cheerleader; Ryan’s jock friend, Reese, is taking an irritating amount of heat for liking a supposedly-unpretty-but-actually-pretty “drama geek” named Pfeifer. All four make for largely uninteresting guides through a night of terror, even while they do a decent job of selling their fear to the camera.
The very basic premise of teenagers getting locked in a bleak school at night is creepy enough. (Though there’s probably a better horror story to be found in the dismal conditions of the public school’s visibly underfunded facilities: the outdated phone system! The grimy locker rooms!) And to an extent, the long stretches of silence with the camera light being swallowed up by an underground corridor are incredibly effective at making viewers involuntarily curl up in their seats with their hands over their eyes. But stitching enough of these kinds of scenes together, even with a loose backstory, doesn’t make for a good scary film.
Nor does it make for an original one. As Geoff Berkshire, writing for Variety, put it, “One advantage of selling horror movies to teenagers is that they’re less likely to already know all the genre tropes.” So you can see why studios keep attempting them, especially low-budget productions: People will pay to see them, no matter how bad. And so, unfortunately, for every truly chilling examples of the genre (The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, [REC]), there are several sequels, imitators, and remakes (Paranormal Activity 4, [REC] 3: Genesis, Quarantine) that continue to dilute the potential of the format.
The Gallows didn’t need to reimagine found-footage horror films, but it could have at least tried harder to exceed the super-low expectations typically set for such cookie-cutter fare. Among the familiar elements: four teenagers who get stuck somewhere with a malevolent, mostly invisible force hunting them down. Inexplicably steady-handed camerawork by someone who always conveniently captures well-framed scenes. Forehead-slapping decisions by the group to split up. Close-up shot of a terrified, crying girl. Steady supply of loud noises to offer jump scares in lieu of suspense-building music. Creepy photographs. TVs that turn on out of nowhere. Cut phone lines.
The problem is that each of these elements doesn’t necessarily make for a bad movie—Sometimes horror makes the poor decision to overcompensate for its formulaic nature by becoming too self-referential (see: MTV’s new series remake of 1996’s slasher flick Scream). But the lazy way The Gallows bundles its tropes together suggests that its creators’ ambitions went no higher than simply getting a horror film made. In a year with upcoming releases such as Sinister 2 and Rings (the latest sequel to The Ring), as well as higher-concept films such as Crimson Peak and Before I Wake, The Gallows seems to fall somewhere in between. Not quite ripping off on the successes of an original film, but not adding anything remotely memorable to the canon, either.