“Hang in there, baby.”
Found footage has crept its way into the lives of movie lovers around the world, for better or worse. Whether you’re a die-hard fan who can’t stop watching The Blair Witch Project every Halloween or find yourself hoping for a sequel to Cloverfield, it’s fair to say the genre has had a good deal of hits. While The Gallows may not be an extremely original film, it’s a fine addition to the Found Footage library. Say what you want about these types of movies (I’m well aware of the massive hate they get from a wide variety of people), I personally love them. There’s something captivating and entertaining about feeling like you’re one of the characters and living the film’s events through their eyes.
The Gallows takes place at a high school where 20 years earlier a horrific accident claimed the life of a student named Charlie during the production of a stage play called The Gallows. The main characters include Reese Houser (played by Reese Mishler), the football player turned drama actor starring in the high school play, Pfeifer Brown (played by Pfeifer Ross), the main love interest for Reese and female lead of the school play, Ryan Shoos (played by… Ryan Shoos), the most obnoxious football playing high schooler ever who also acts as the lead cameraman for the film, and his cheerleader girlfriend Cassidy Spilker (played by Cassidy Gifford).
Reese is terrible at trying to be a dramatic actor, but for some reason is given the lead role in what is the school’s biggest play. His best friend Ryan comes up with a plan to sneak into the school after hours and destroy the set so Reese won’t become an embarrassment. They’re joined by Cassidy who wants to prove she’s more than a blonde cheerleader (but spoiler alert, that’s all she really ends up being). Once inside the school they start to dismantle everything when they run into Pfeifer who came into the school because she saw the others’ car parked outside. With Pfeifer around the main characters can’t continue with their plan, but upon trying to leave they find every exit to the school locked, trapping them inside. From there on out they are tormented and stalked by a mostly invisible entity that is the ghost of Charlie who had perished 20 years earlier.
The best part about our four lead high school actors is that they really seem like high schoolers. They’re all young enough and believable to actually be in high school, unlike many other failed horror films (*cough* The Faculty *cough*). The dialog is obnoxious, repetitive, and at times irritating — which are all believable traits for high schoolers, after all.
The best aspect of The Gallows is lead antagonist, the seemingly undead Charlie Grimille, who haunts the school, ready to use his noose on unsuspecting teens. From the trailers it looked like he would be prominently shown throughout the film, but that was all just terrible editing for those pieces. Much like the shark in Jaws, you always know Charlie is lurking in the darkness, but he’s rarely ever seen — even when he strikes.
What The Gallows does right is gives the characters a reason to be filming and actually treats the camera equipment like real camera equipment. If you’ve never been in a high school at night, just ask any of your old drama friends or ask the bearded, flannel wearing guy with a decent DSLR who’s obviously been in abandoned buildings, and they’ll tell you those places get extremely dark and terrifying. The characters use the on-board light of the camera to guide them through most of the scenarios throughout the school. Something The Gallows does that I’ve never seen in any other recent found footage film is actually show the camera frequently starting to run out of battery. This seemingly simple element is effective at least as far as realism goes. As a cameraman myself, I never get more frustrated by these types of movies when cameras just seem to run on forever with endless storage. It may seem knit-picking, but it creates a more realistic tone for the film to actually see characters struggle with their equipment. For a successful horror film, you want the audience to truly feel like they’re in the moment, and little details like this help create that authentic tone.
In the end it’s hard to hate The Gallows, but I understand that people will. The film feels more like a survival horror video game than any other found footage flick. With the rise of popular games like Outlast or Slender Man (which both have playable characters armed with only a camcorder), these survival elements feel rich throughout. The filmmakers, cast, and crew all set out with one goal in mind: Make a good “found footage” horror flick for teenagers. They did exactly that. It’s not The Exorcist, it’s not Rosemary’s Baby, and it’s not trying to convey big ideas and plot points. The Gallows isn’t earth shattering, but if you’re in the mood for some simple scares and a fan of found footage, it might do the trick.