A film review by Jordan Pressler

Found-footage is a technique the horror genre has depended on for innumerable years at this point. While it’s been theorized that the genesis dates back to 1980 with the cult classic, Cannibal Holocaust, there can be little debate that the film that truly popularized what has now become accepted as a subgenre all its own is the 1999 supernatural horror masterpiece, The Blair Witch Project, which demonstrated that, when it comes to crafting an effective spine-tingler, all you need is a camera, a vision, and a talented crew to bring it all together. Horror wouldn’t be the same without ambitious people like Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez proving how much greater imagination is over a big budget. 

Unfortunately, while the device can still be used to produce simple stories with maximum frights and economical equipment, every once in a while, a filmmaking team will use the tried-and-true formula to milk just a little more cash out of an increasingly tired cow. Such is the case with Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff’s halfhearted effort, The Gallowswhich fuses a commonplace teen slasher narrative with the documentarian camerawork and supernatural shenanigans of Blair Witch to disastrously dull effect.

Opening on a flashback to October 29th, 1993, at Beatrice High School, Charlie Grimille (Jesse Cross) is starring in a theatre production of the titular play when an undisclosed prop malfunction sends him hanging for real before a horrified audience, which includes his parents. While the lines spoken by Charlie’s father as he eagerly records his actor son are hopelessly corny and artificial – “Wow, Charlie’s doing so good, considering the last-minute change!” – this opening represents one of the two and only effective scenes in the whole production. Charlie’s accidental, sudden hanging made me jump slightly out of my seat, and watching the startled audience and crew rush up to the stage, screaming hysterically, actually felt genuine. 

Moving forward to October 28th, 2013, one day shy of the 20th anniversary of the tragic incident, Beatrice High School finally feels the time has to come to give this ill-fated production a second chance to see the light of day. Ryan Shoos (played by none other than Ryan Shoos) goes around his high school with a video camera, sitting in the theatre and recording the drama club’s efforts at recreating The Gallows. When he bears witness to his best friend, Reese Houser (Reese Mishler) giving a terrible performance in the lead role, Ryan deduces that the only reason Reese agreed to star in the play was to get on the good side of his co-star/bigtime crush, Pfeifer Ross (Phifer Brown). Along with his cheerleader girlfriend, Cassidy Spilker (Cassidy Gifford), Ryan convinces Reese to allow him to break into the school at night and destroy the theatre props so that the show won’t go on – and Reese will not have to embarrass himself on stage in front of hundreds of people. Things go awry, however, when a mysterious, ghostly presence disapproves of the group’s malicious intentions and decides to teach them a lesson one-by-one style.

The initial fundamental flaw within the first 2 minutes of this piece of garbage is Lofing and Cluff’s fatally misguided decision to present Ryan Shoos as the protagonist. Once we arrive at the present, the events of the day unfold through Ryan’s camcorder, and we’re forced to spend the majority of the runtime listening to this asshole’s disgusting comments, all of which are criticisms on things he knows nothing about. Ryan is the absolute worst choice for a leading character because he is an out-and-out bully; every last word that comes out of his mouth is a worthless judgment. He snickers and jeers at his own best friend for being emotionally unengaged in the admittedly hokey play, treats his girlfriend like a dog, makes fun of and throws a football at the head of the nerdy stage manager, and thinks nothing of vandalizing the set that a lot of people clearly worked tirelessly on for months. “I love working in the drama club: I get to spend time around the ugliest girls”, he remarks. When Cassidy offers to accompany Reese and Ryan to the school at night, the latter’s response is essentially, “No, you’re not coming. You’re a cheerleader. You know nothing about how to have fun and do awesome, mischievous things like break into a school.” Remember, this jerk serves as the perspective through which we view the material. He’s the type of stock character who, one: you know is going to die, and two: you want to see die… badly. Sadly, the neutered PG-13 rating robs us of the satisfaction of a juicy, gruesome slaying that would befit someone of his sort. 

Returning to a comment I made earlier about this film containing two effective moments: the second one involves the aforementioned nerdy stage manager, whom Ryan refers to as “stage boy”, attaining his comeuppance via tricking Ryan into climbing on a rope only to cause him to fall down and earn the derisive laughter of all the drama club members he ridiculed. That made for an undeniably gratifying joke that practically had me rising from my couch and clapping in victory. Sorry to report, that’s about as good as it gets. 

Following the trio’s discussion on breaking into the school later in the nighttime, things become increasingly short on logic. First off, after Ryan chases after the stage manager and grabs a hold of him to deliver an intended punch, the theatre teacher catches him in the act and puts a stop to the fight, yet allows Ryan to walk free? 

Immediately after the halted argument, Ryan discovers that the backdoor is unlocked. When he questions another student about this bizarre find, she responds, “Yeah, that door’s broken. Everyone knows that.” Now, what school in this day and age of shootings would allow a door to remain broken, thereby enabling a psychopath off the street to wander in and do whatever? After the Sandy Hook massacre that claimed the lives of 27 children and staff, my middle school took drastic measures to ensure every classroom door was locked from the outside once all of us were seated. Yet, this frighteningly lackadaisical institution just leaves their backdoor unlocked while, allegedly, every student is aware of the fact. This is what I will refer to as “contrived plot device #1”. 

As Ryan makes his way up to the Houser’s front door to pick up Reese, he doesn’t think to knock or ring the doorbell. He simply opens the door, which, of course, is unlocked. It seems everybody who exists in this mentally incapacitated universe just leaves their doors broken or unlocked as if it were the pre-Manson family murders 60s. Oh, and how so very convenient: just as Ryan barges into his buddy’s residence, his camera, which always seems to be recording for no logical reason, captures a perfectly timed argument between Reese and his father, who is in the middle of rebuking his son for quitting the football team in favor of the drama club. In case you’re wondering, nope, Reese’s dad doesn’t chastise Ryan for literally breaking into their home. What world are these so-called human beings living in? Anyway, this has been “contrived plot device #2”. Really makes you itch to get into the central plotline, doesn’t it? 

Reese, Ryan, and Cassidy pull up at Beatrice High and stealthily make their way into the theatre through the backdoor – but not before Reese makes the foolish decision to park his car RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE BUILDING. Did he not stop to think for a second, “what if a cop drives by, sees my car right by the school, and decides to search for potential vandalizers”? Contrived plot device #3. Okay, at this point, I feel confident enough to refrain from calling out anymore labored plot devices because there are far too many to discuss in one review. The behavior of nearly every character here is illogical and downright mean-spirited, too much so to care about what happens to any of them. 

I’ve said this before, and I will continue to say it, the most important aspect of crafting a good horror movie is writing intelligent characters with whom I can empathize and enjoy spending time. When I develop a connection with at least one central character in a horror story, be it due to their witty sense of humor, impressive survival skills, goodhearted personalities, or sympathetic backstories, it’s much easier to feel afraid of the terror they’re facing because I care about them. Horror is empathy, and if I feel sympathy or kinship toward the people being terrorized, then, in turn, I become afraid, too. The Gallows, by contrast, indulges in the most egregious offence often encountered in the slasher subgenre: it makes its characters so unsympathetic, idiotic, pathetic, or just plain vapid, that I couldn’t care less about the fact they’re all going to die before the sun rises. Just get on with it, Charlie. These losers are not worth getting worked up about. 

Predictability is a major disease that plagues this brainless junk. While at first, the loud noises in the auditorium are courtesy of the juvenile jerks smashing pieces of glass on the stage and knocking over plants, it soon becomes evident that a fourth party is among us, lurking in the dark. What do you imagine occurs after Cassidy realizes they’ve made a huge mistake and wants out? If you guessed that the always-unlocked backdoor is now suddenly locked, you’d be exactly right. What are the chances these teens’ cellphones will have a working signal to call for help once they’re locked in? If you answered, “none”, then once again, give yourself a pat on the back. You can guess this movie’s formulaic beats long before the writer-directors arrive at them. 

As far as the acting is concerned, I wouldn’t say anybody involved submitted an atrocious performance, but I didn’t find myself emotionally invested in their plights, either. Reese Mishler doesn’t embarrass himself as badly in his legitimate role as he does on the stage as “August”, but he nevertheless succumbs to glib overacting and an irritatingly befuddled expression that suggests he has never stood in front of a camera before in his young life. When he comes across a moderately interesting secret regarding a connection between his father and the death of Charlie Grimille from 20 years ago tomorrow, Reese delivers the most eye-rollingly exaggerated overreaction, looking once again like a deer caught in the headlights as he falls back against the wall and slowly drops to the floor. Give me a break, drama queen! 

Cassidy Gifford is a stunningly attractive screen presence, no question about it. With her long blonde hair, drop-dead gorgeous physique and angelic, angular visage, she was destined to wind up as a popular cheerleader in a relationship with a jock-jerk in a teen slasher film sooner or later. Regrettably, Lofing and Cluff’s consistently unimaginative script reduces her to a whimpering, hysterical, overly dependent train wreck. Honestly, she’s an idiot for choosing to remain a girlfriend for so long to such an obnoxious, charmless man-child who visibly doesn’t give a damn about her. Furthermore, her insistence to join in on the boys’ reckless adventure to take down the theatre is purely motivated by a desire to prove to Ryan that she can be “cool” just like him, that just because she’s a girl, it doesn’t mean she’s incapable of living dangerously. These losers were so obviously made for each other. Perfect match. Then, once it becomes clear a supernatural presence is forbidding these punks from going free, Cassidy curls up into a ball in the corner and begins crying her eyes out. She’s too much of a thoroughly pathetic damsel in distress to feel much in the way of sorrow for. Especially in this day and age of strong, powerful women represented in the horror genre, Cassidy comes across as a pitiful anachronism.

Pfeifer Brown is definitely my favorite actor in the cast, not that that makes for much of an endorsement. Her character is neither a jerk nor much of a bore. She displays enough commendable enthusiasm and upbeat energy to suggest she truly is a theatre nerd at heart, and I certainly respect that since I myself participated in a handful of plays during the summer of my elementary years. Although, the script doesn’t do her any favors by arbitrarily dropping her in the middle of the nighttime in-school adventure. Pfeifer is “shocked” to find her three classmates exiting the auditorium, yet none of them think to ask her just what in the hell she happens to be doing there as well. In case I didn’t already mention, intelligence, logic, and planning are in short supply with this little caper. 

Let’s now talk about the (attempted) scare tactics. The otherworldly antics scattered throughout the progressively preposterous storyline are standard, hackneyed tricks that we’ve seen play out depressingly countless times before. Under the filmmakers’ ploddingly-paced direction, we are treated to a collection of everything you could assume to find out of a horror movie of this ilk: strange sounds emanating from a location out of the camera’s view, loud, thumping footsteps above the ceiling, characters wandering off and never being heard of again, doors refusing to open, phone lines cut off. You name it. The elemental issue that compounds the overwhelming sense of déjà vu provoked by the trite paranormal activity is the fact that it is impossible to feel anything for the people subjected to it. 

It would be possible to forgive the familiarity of the scares and the dearth of charisma in the stars had Lofing and Cluff elected a hardcore, no-holds-barred R rating. If Charlie had been realized with more style and individuality so that he could ultimately stand as more than an occasionally glimpsed ghostly figure holding a rope noose and wearing a hangman’s mask over his face if his kills had featured more variety and inventiveness than just wrapping his noose around the characters’ necks and dragging them backward or yanking them upward to secure a safe PG-13 “teen-friendly” rating from the MPAA, then we horror fans may have had a fresh, memorable villain on our hands to join the upper echelon of world-(in)famous slashers a la Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger. His noose could’ve potentially sat side by side with Jason’s machete and Freddy’s glove, as the promotions had only fantasized about. Alas, our talentless duo chose to expend more energy on raking in enough teenagers to raise the ticket sales rather than honoring them with a well-thought-out story consisting of original ideas and gorily gratifying kills. This is a joyless, watered-down slasher that registers as further evidence why a teen slasher movie should never, and I mean, NEVER, settle for a lame, tame PG-13 rating.

Lofing and Cluff, in spite of their agonizingly long stretches of silence and cautious excursions down blackened corridors, fail miserably at building the palpable sense of dread to which they’re clearly aspiring. The numerous shots of boxes stacked up on top of each other, a hidden room filled with homey decor, a locker that has someone’s phone ringing inside of it, none of that had me leaning on the edge of my seat. It was painfully boring to endure.

Putting aside the bloodless violence and despicable characters for a moment, The Gallows’ premise did wield some potential. Personally, I love the idea of a horror story focusing on a group of friends breaking into their school late at night to wreak some havoc. There’s something chillingly exciting about a school in the night, when the usual classrooms, hallways and lockers that we’re so accustomed to looking at every morning with yawn-inducing disdain, suddenly become shrouded in darkness, emitting a strangely threatening ambience. 

The aura of superstition surrounding a stage production is another ingredient that I was on board with. When I was in my senior year of high school, my theatre instructor informed us of real-life accounts concerning play-related accidents that resulted in reports of eerie happenings: lights turning on and off without anybody in the room, people falling off ladders or through a dilapidated catwalk, etc. This loose basis, in reality, is an excellent material for a horror film to play off of, which makes it all the more frustrating in the long run that Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff butchered the living daylights out of what could have been a really fun premise. Their sense of logic is about as wonky as Edd Lukas’ handheld cinematography, which goes from solid to excruciatingly incoherent. Once the doomed teens officially enter the running-for-their-lives stage of the story, so too does the camerawork. It shakes back and forth, all around, up and down a flight of stairs, in and out of a corridor. It becomes virtually impossible to discern where the characters are at any given moment, and who exactly is supposed to be holding the camera. And quite frankly, because the characters in this scenario are little more than bodies lining up for the slaughter, it’s not even worth returning to for a better understanding. By the time the screen finally cut to black following a flimsy, toothless lunge-at-your-face jump scare, I was just about ready to have a noose securely fastened around my own neck. 

Note: Jordan gave this film 1 1/2 stars bumped up to 2 by Horror Oasis for our rating system.

Rating: 2 out of 5.


Jordan Pressler is horror movie fanatic and screenplay writer who’s work can be found on Fanon Fandom. Follow Jordan on Twitter.
Daddy Still Loves Us is a screenplay by Jordan Pressler. Click here to read it for FREE!

Daddy Still Loves Us is a 2019 American supernatural psychological horror film that revolves around an adolescent boy named Marcus, who finds himself falling victim to an inner malevolence after the death of his father.

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