There is a brief moment late into The Gallows that is so restrained and so steadily terrifying that I felt a great lurch in my stomach. Cassidy, the buxom cheerleader is trying to pull herself together after her boyfriend goes missing. She sits at the top the of stairs trying to pull herself together. The camera holds one shot for a what seems like an eternity. A figure emerges from the darkness behind her so slowly that it takes our eyes a moment to register that something is there. It’s the kind of terrifying moment that horror movies are made for.
I wish I could say the same about the rest of the movie!
The Gallows a heap of towering vapidness wrapped in a gimmick that doesn’t work, juggling a handful of characters who are pawns not people. It’s a colossal miscalculation of character and tension built on a flimsy idea and padded out by a shopworn gimmick that doesn’t build tension so much as get on your nerves – this is, you guessed it, another found-footage movie.
The movie doesn’t have a plot so much as the meager beginnings of a concept. Back in 1993, at Bernice High School in Nebraska, the senior class is putting on a production of a play called “The Gallows” starring one Charlie Grimille – the climax of which is a hanging. For whatever reason, the prop people apparently built the gallows to be fully functioning so Charlie is actually hanged onstage in front of a live audience. A generation later the students still talk about Charlie and the infamous mishap. Despite the infamy, the school has decided to allow another performance of the same play. Why? Because we wouldn’t have a movie, that’s why.
What follows is a found-footage train wreck following four kids as they break into the school at night to trash the stage so that the lead actor will be spared the indignity of humiliating himself in front of the entire school. The kids are nothing special. There’s Ryan, an over-caffeinated jock who is filming the whole thing for . . . reasons. There’s Reese, the clueless hunky guy who is the lead actor in the play. There’s Pfieffer, the pretty lead actress on whom Reese is crushing hard, and there’s Cassidy, Reese’s cheerleader girlfriend. These people don’t have personalities, they are placeholders.
Seen through the advent of shaky-cam, the kids sneak into the school in the middle of the night to trash the stage and, upon making their exit, find that all the doors are locked. Worse, they find that the stage has been untrashed. Throughout the night, the camera passes between each of the kids in a fit of panic (who wouldn’t?) as they very slowly begin to discover that the ghost of Charlie Gimille is hunting them down. The kids run through the bowels of this school which seems to go on and on and on and seems to have no floor plan. Admittedly some of the set-decoration could be scary as you might feel the disorientation of being in a dark school in the middle of the night.
The basic problem is, there are no rules here. Charlie can appear out of thin air, but he can move objects and even kill someone. There’s no real reason why he should be killing these kids other than the fact that they happen to be in the school. So why does Charlie only attack intruders? Has he never attacked anyone in the 20 years since his death? Does no one go missing? Why did he wait until this exact night to strike? And again why is this found footage? Why is the camera still running after it should have run out of battery power? Why is Reese still running around after he breaks his leg? I have a headache. I’m going to go lay down.