When they announced that the next installment of Paranormal Activity would be the last, I’d hoped that studios had finally realized the error of their cheap, lazy ways. No such luck; this found-footage genre won’t give up the ghost that easily, and The Gallows is among the worst of the bunch.
There is, at least, the germ of a story here. In 1993, the high school in Beatrice, Nebraska put on a production of The Gallows, which seems to be a knock-off of The Crucible. The lead called in sick for the opening performance, and his understudy took over, only to be accidentally hanged onstage when a trap door falls through. It’s not clear what was supposed to happen, though; that they built a trap door at all implies they intended for it to open, but there’s no evidence of a rig intended to fake the hanging.
Anyway, it was this big traumatic deal in the community, but twenty years later the drama teacher (co-writer/director Travis Cluff) has gotten approval to put on the same play, and they’ve gotten everything right down to the programs just the same as it was. This despite the fact that the play has become the school’s own Macbeth, including a superstition against even mentioning the dead boy’s name.
There’s some mumbled dialogue about a “drama requirement”, which I think is meant to explain why Ryan (Ryan Shoos) is working up in the lighting booth in the first place. Not only does he hold the entire production in contempt specifically, he’s a jerk of the highest order in general. He’s glib, arrogant, physically abusive to the “nerdy” stage crew, and emotionally abusive to his girlfriend (Cassidy Gifford). Within the first ten minutes I was actively rooting for his death.
The male lead in the play is Ryan’s football buddy (Reese Mishler), who seems to have gotten the part more on cheekbones than chops. He can’t remember his lines, and looks like he’s about to vomit when he has to kiss the female lead (Pfeifer Brown). She does too, for that matter, and it turns out Ryan has a bit of a crush on her, which is why he doesn’t just abdicate and let his own understudy take over.
But then Ryan comes through with a plan: he and Reese will get into the school the night before the opening through a door with a broken lock and trash the set. The show doesn’t have to go on, and Reese can be there to comfort Pfeifer. Cassidy tags along, and they’re well into their plan when Pfeifer shows up. Then they find they can’t leave; the broken door won’t open and neither will any of the others. Things start going bump in the night, and then it’s jump scares and terrible camera work for the rest of the movie.
Of course, there’s the usual litany of problems: shaky, badly-lit, badly-focused cameras that cut out half the time is a cheap way to avoid actually making anything scary, and yelling “boo” at the camera is a poor excuse for actually building an atmosphere. On top of that, the writing is even worse than usual for this sort of movie. The characters aren’t all as awful as Ryan, but there’s no reason for us to care about any of their fates. They literally quote The Blair Witch Project, as if awareness of the better movies that came before will make up for their lack of effort.
Worst of all, there’s no logic or cohesion to the underlying story. Whatever’s stalking the kids has something to do with the kid who died in 1993, and there are a number of suggestions that the kids’ own family histories are tied up in that incident. That makes sense for a big story in a small town that happened just a few years before they were born, but none of these suggestions tie into each other in any satisfying way. What does the thing want with them? Was there more to the 1993 events than a tragic accident? Why was the janitor (David Herrera) pointedly introduced, and why does the chase lead the kids through the maintenance tunnels; does he have something to do with it?
Cluff and his fellow writer/director Chris Lofing point frantically in all these directions, but it’s ultimately a smokescreen to cover the fact that there’s actually no story here at all. Without real answers to the questions they raise, there’s nothing more to The Gallows than half-baked excuses to throw jump scares at a bunch of kids we’re all too glad to be rid of in the first place.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.