Review: ‘The Gallows’ is bottom-of-the-barrel genre junk without any scares

Anytime you make statements about an entire style of filmmaking, you are going to be proven wrong. I could say, “I don't like found-footage horror films anymore,” and in general, that may be true, but then something comes along that works and you have to retract the big broad statement.

I think the simple test is this: would the story you are telling be scary if you shot it a different way?

The “Paranormal Activity” series is an interesting example of this. I like the overall story that series has been telling, and I think there's an interesting mythology that they've built. The actual storytelling is tied directly in to the use of the “found footage,” though, and I'm not sure you could make those movies a different way and still tell that story. I liked “Afflicted” a lot recently, which could easily have worked as a conventional horror film. In that case, the found footage technique managed to draw you in and make it feel like a personal record of a trip that then goes wrong.

In the case of “The Gallows,” I have no idea why they even bothered to make it in this style, except that it has become the new go-to way of keeping a budget down. It is a shortcut these days, and “The Gallows” pushed me way past my tolerance point before it reached the halfway mark. It is a singularly unpleasant experience, not because it is scary or extreme or even interesting. It is unpleasant because it is a dull story filled with characters that are so poorly drawn as to be forgettable even while you're watching them. I could live the rest of my life without seeing another crappy horror film about unpleasant asshole teenagers screaming and crying into cameras in close-up while they die in ugly ways.

Directed and written by Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing, “The Gallows” is pretty standard ghost story fare. There was a high school production of a play, and during a hanging scene, there was an accident, killing a high school student. Now, twenty or so years later, there's a new production of the same play, and the students who are involved may find there is a heavy price to pay for trying to get it right.

If you find walking through unlit school hallways where nothing is happening terrifying, then the vast majority of “The Gallows” should be your cup of tea. One of the school's football players, Reese (Reese Houser), has been talked into starring in the play by plucky drama student Pfeifer Ross (Pfeifer Brown). He's not very good, though, and on the night before the play's opening, his friend Ryan Shoos (Ryan Shoos) talks him into breaking into the school along with Ryan's girlfriend Cassidy Spilker (Cassidy Gifford) to destroy the set, making sure Reese won't have to embarrass himself onstage. When Pfeifer shows up to stop them, they all end up locked in with a very methodical and angry ghost who takes his sweet time getting down to business. I could be unkind and suggest that the characters are named the way they are so as not to tax the thespians who make up the cast, but that would require me to believe that these are characters. There's only one real narrative move in the whole film, and it comes near the end. It is so breathtakingly stupid and impossible that it renders the entire rest of the film absurd. I guess that's an improvement from “boring and forgettable,” though, so hats off to the filmmakers for waking up in the final few minutes of the movie.

If it feels like I'm beating this particular film up more than normal, it's because there is a hollow, cynical quality to this one that I find upsetting. Blumhouse has had a very successful last few years, and they certainly laid the foundation for that with “Paranormal Activity.” But if they're going to pick up movies like this and they're going to continue to perpetuate the idea that all you need to make a theatrically released horror film is bad camerawork and dark rooms, then I'm tapping out. Story. Character. Atmosphere. These are the fundamentals that we've been scared by for decades. Trading all of that for a cheap gimmick that has already more than worn out its welcome is not something I'm willing to accept.

“The Gallows” is in theaters today.