*Potential Spoiler Alerts- You Have Been Warned*
When I was seeing the first trailers for this movie, they kept saying “redefines horror” and I had no clue what that meant. After watching The Gallows, I still have no idea what that means because nothing was redefined. It’s the same found-footage, jump-scare-full, dramatically bad writing that most other horror movies of its budget have been.
Open on a family film of a high-school production of The Gallows (which looks kinda like the Crucible, and that’s all you’ll ever know for sure about it) where a student named Charlie is accidentally hung when the prop breaks. Cut to present day where the play is being revived to honor said student. The lead actor Reese is laughably horrible at his lines and his friend Ryan convinces him to “save the show” by sneaking into the school late at night and dismantling the set. He also hopes to impress the lead actress Pfeifer, who he has a crush on, by doing this.
Reese and Ryan end up being joined by Ryan’s girlfriend Cassidy for the break-in, where Pfeifer eventually stumbles upon them. They all then are locked in the school where the spirit of “Charlie” stalks and picks them off.
There are many, many, many things wrong with this movie, but the biggest one for me was its completely unrealistic story. First of all, as an alum of a drama club myself, there is no way that the night before the show, your lead actor doesn’t know all of his lines. If he’s that bad you would have replaced him two or three weeks in. And if Reese is as into Pfeifer as he says and he really wants to impress her, he could just, I don’t know, LEARN HIS LINES. I suppose I shouldn’t expect Oscar-worthy writing from a horror film in general, let alone one that was written and directed by one of its actors and invested in by friends of said actors, but the least you can do is TRY to keep me invested in the story if you really want to scare me. If my mind wanders you’re not going to get any screaming out of me.
Of course in order for there to be a decent story, it might have helped for the writers to decide what they wanted the story to be. The trailer makes the film out to be about the ghost of “Charlie” reacting to the destruction of the set he died performing on, which is how the movie starts. Then about halfway in, the script decides that it’s all about revenge for a past slight, not the actual production of The Gallows that’s about to be performed. The cut between the two ideas is so jarring that you’ve badly gotten used to the first idea before the second one is tossed at you, and then the movie continues to go back and forth on the two (does “Charlie” want to attack Ryan and Cassidy, who destroyed most of the set, or Reese, who’s attached to the past, or Pfeifer, who decided to put the show on in the first place?) so that you never know quite where the story stands with this ghost. The tagline for the movie, “Every School has its Spirit”, doesn’t exactly help clarify what the story is about either- if anything it makes the direction the filmmakers intended to go even more confusing.
Unfortunately for the viewer, the scariest scene of the movie is one that you have already seen- the scene from the trailers and promotional posters where “Charlie” emerges from the shadows behind Cassidy, bathed in the blood red light of the emergency alarm. Beyond that, predictable jump scares are predictable and, like all other found-footage “successes”, you barely ever see the source of the characters’ terror because the camera is always pointed the other way.
The problem is that after movies like The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007), directors discovered that it is relatively cheap and easy to make a found-footage horror film. You don’t need to film every moment because the shakiness of the camera and the inability to see everything will make the experience “scarier” and as long as you throw in the right sound effect at the right time, you can make anyone jump and possibly scream. After Paranormal Activity started rolling in hundreds of thousands more than it was making, the new standard for horror movies was met- make it as cheaply as possible, but throw in enough paranormal happenings and jump scares and audiences will eat that up.
It’s a well-known fact that horror movies would not be nearly as scary if there was no sound to them (as someone whose viewing of The Purge (2013) involved the sound cutting out halfway through, I can personally attest to this)- the right noise at the right time will make you jump no matter what, even if you knew it was coming. It’s like revisiting The Dark Knight and knowing that when the mayor walks to the window, the fake Batman is going to smack into it- you know it’s coming, you’ve seen it God knows how many times, but because of that loud dramatic noise you jump (even if it’s just a little bit) anyway. So even though you KNOW that “Charlie” is about to appear out of that shadow or that the locker is going to slam shut, you’re going to jump anyway because the noise triggers it.
So maybe I’m being unfair to The Gallows. Maybe it’s hit the audience right on the head with this whole found-footage, easy-to-spot jump scares thing and MAYBE some people find this scary.
But if you’re one of the people who wants a little more substance in their horror, who actually wants the movie to try to legitimately scare them, I suggest you keep looking, because you’re not going to find it swinging on these gallows.
Just go watch The Conjuring (2013) again.