In The Gallows, four teenagers are menaced by the ghost of a student who died in a freak accident two decades earlier. Charlie, the dead kid, was the star of the school play, a period piece (also called The Gallows) that ended with his character’s execution by hanging. Because this is a found-footage horror movie, the first thing we see is home-video imagery of opening night, when the platform beneath Charlie’s feet actually gave out and a real rope snapped tight around his neck. Now Charlie’s back in supernatural form, just in time for the 20th anniversary of his demise, which the drama department has opted to commemorate by performing The Gallows anew. Poor taste, for sure, but isn’t the malevolence misplaced? Charlie should really be peeved at the director and stage manager of that first production, who threw caution to the wind with a dangerous setup, or maybe just himself for agreeing to stick his head into a rigged noose. But then, a ghost haunted by his own poor judgment probably wouldn’t put too many hairs on end.
Set on the eve of the new production’s premiere, The Gallows unfolds chiefly through the camera lens of Ryan (Ryan Shoos, because yes, this is one of those found-footage films where most of the characters are named for the actors playing them, as though that fools anyone). Fond of picking on the geeky stage hands and putting down his cheerleader girlfriend (Cassidy Gifford), Ryan essentially serves the same function as the amateur cameraman of Cloverfield: He provides frat-boyish comic relief when not zooming in on pertinent expository information. Early into the film, the jock jokester stops to comment on the inappropriateness of his school keeping an original Gallows cast photo prominently displayed behind glass. It’s the smartest thing anyone will say or do in this movie.
A high school after hours isn’t the worst setting for a horror film, and there’s potential in the idea of a new stage production literally haunted by the ghosts of an old one. But once it’s rounded up all of its principals, including a football-star-turned-thespian (Reese Mishler) and his theater-kid crush (Pfeifer Brown), The Gallows falls quickly into the usual pitfalls of the genre. The lack of an especially frightening villain doesn’t help: While you have to commend Charlie for his conceptual consistency, his weapon of choice (a rope, naturally) only has a couple of murderous applications. Compounding the problem is the fact that the kids he’s stringing up exhibit typically stupid behavior—wandering off alone, climbing onto precarious ledges, even mocking the evil spirit that’s got it out for them. Making audiences care about the characters is always a more effective fear-generating strategy than just knocking off a bunch of dimwits in the dark.
The Gallows adds only one wrinkle to its all-too-familiar format: Rather than just crosscut between the two cameras Ryan and company cart around with them, directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing essentially rewind the timeline to show the same events from separate perspectives—allowing, for example, the viewer to see what really happened to a character that appeared to die offscreen a few minutes earlier. Unfortunately, the movie never does anything clever or interesting with that technique, nor does it effectively exploit the common conventions of found-footage horror. The Gallows is just another cheapo mock-doc fright flight, shakily trailing a gaggle of attractive, screaming nobodies as nooses literal and otherwise tighten around their throats. Isn’t it curtains already for this tired trend?