Without a Scare in the World — “The Gallows”

The Gallows Reese looks up at noose
A metaphor for the film.

Minions is completely critic-proof – you know exactly what you’re going to get going in, so we’ll counter-program with a new horror movie this week: The Gallows. Found footage horror (or point-of-view horror) sometimes hides gems like The Last Exorcism, As Above, So Below or this year’s Unfriended. Unfortunately, The Gallows is not one of these.

The Gallows follows four Nebraskan high-school students the night before putting on a play. The play is infamous because it resulted in a student named Charlie getting hanged 22 years before. The Gallows is interesting for a little while because of its weakest element – the character holding the camera most of the time, Ryan, is a complete sociopath. Ryan’s best friend is Reese, who’s only slightly sociopathic. Ryan convinces Reese to break into the school and destroy the play the night before it opens so that the the lead actress, Pfeifer, will be so sad that she’ll turn to Reese for consolation. Yes, that really is the plot.

When they break into the school with Ryan’s even more sociopathic girlfriend Cassidy, it turns out the place is haunted by the ghost of Charlie. Big shock, I know. Unlike the drip-feed of information present in other horror movies, only one detail of consequence is discovered as the characters run from one side of the high school to the other and back again. It’s as if they’re caught in an endless Breakfast Club montage. The school itself is filled with hidden basements, towering rafters, and some sort of nonsensical back alley. Nobody ever questions these things, they just trip into them, realize it’s the wrong completely inexplicable back alley, film a wall for 20 seconds, and then turn around.

What’s most frustrating about The Gallows isn’t its plot or setting, though. Nearly everyone with access to a good camera makes some version of this movie in high school. There’s something appealing about kids running around a high school at night, facing down their fears. The plot doesn’t get old. We just came to see models in their 20s pretending to be high schoolers who meet with bad ends – it’s really not a high bar to pass.

The Gallows kids watch TV
Hey, this looks like a good program!

The frustration is all in the shoddy filmmaking. You want 30-second shots of a wooden floor while people argue in a much more interesting shot the audience doesn’t get to see? You got it. You want 30 seconds of staring at a dark screen with a red streak of light reflecting down a hallway while nothing at all happens? You’ve got that, too. In fact, if you love shaky shots of nothing while characters argue some place the camera isn’t pointing, this is your Citizen Kane. Walls, floors, walls that meet floors – The Gallows truly has it all.

It’s not helped by the editing. The four high schoolers seem to have special powers of growing more cameras at will. They start with two, but expand that number to four or five halfway through the film. There’s even a moment where the cell phone a character’s fixing is in the shot that’s being recorded by the cell phone that he’s supposed to be fixing. Figure that one out.

If you look at a successful POV horror film like As Above, So Below, what makes found footage effective is the staging and choreography that’s hidden within each scene. When characters themselves are holding the cameras, a single character taking a few steps can change the relation of every potential shot in the room. In a horror movie where everyone’s running around the whole time, the characters and their cameras change relation every second. When we switch between cameras, especially in darkly lit movies, we need to understand whose camera we’ve switched to and where everyone is in relation to her.

The audience can’t be struggling with whose perspective we’re witnessing. The editing needs to clearly imply whose view we’ve switched to and which characters are still in the scene. Without these two foundations, an audience is left shrugging at how certain characters come to be in certain sequences. “Wasn’t she just over there with her friend? Why’s she all alone now?” If you’re constantly asking these questions, something’s gone pretty wrong. As Above, So Below managed this expertly with eight characters in a crumbling ruin. The Gallows can’t manage it with only four in a pretty stationary high school.

Why chase and strangle them with a noose when you can magically throw them across a room when you're not even there-- oh, forget it!
Why chase and strangle them with a noose when you can magically throw them across a room when you’re not even there– oh, forget it!

What you’re left with as a viewer is the experience of shrugging your shoulders for 81 minutes. The characters run to and fro without a destination or a goal in mind. They’re never rewarded by the story for surviving long enough to discover something new. They’re never punished in a way that seems appropriate or deliciously ironic. There are long hallway shots that don’t even take advantage of having such a deep background for something to catch our eye. You can break any rule in horror you want, but you’ve got to understand the rules you’re breaking first. The Gallows has zero grasp on those rules. Even its supernatural beastie doesn’t seem to follow any particular logic outside of “Hey, I saw this in a scary movie once.”

The Gallows is a treasure trove of missed opportunities. The overall concept is decent. The ending is even smart, but it’s atrociously handled – no foreshadowing, no clues to excite or lead us to a moment, nothing to make the twist seem like it’s been earned. You can’t appreciate what little intelligence is in the film because it feels tacked on at the last second from some other movie, and then it’s filmed so badly that you start to miss those 30-second shots of floors.

My hope for a very long time was that the sociopaths in the group would stop screaming and start being sociopaths again. That would make an interesting movie: sociopaths trying to out-evil a supernatural horror that just isn’t prepared for how truly sociopathic these awful, awful kids are.

The Gallows also uses a prank war in its opening 20 minutes to pad out its brief, 81-minute length. It’s a useless B-plot, but for a long time, I also hoped that everything would be a giant prank – walls would pull back and reveal the entire cast, who were really teaching Ryan and Reese a lesson about the dangers of pranking. Everyone would freeze frame in a smile at the end as if they were in a Saved by the Bell episode.

Seriously, if it had all turned out to be a prank war, this would be the most glowing review you've ever read.
Seriously, if it had all turned out to be a prank war, this would be the most glowing review you’ve ever read.

Heck, I even hoped at the end that they’d just hire Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles to pop into the school with shotguns blazing. They could all pretend this was a subpar episode of Supernatural the whole time. I kept hoping for something, anything beyond what I was actually watching because the horror movie I saw felt like it was pulling my leg. Something in it had to be a joke. The punch line never came.

I’ll say two things in its favor. The whole movie was made for $100,000, and it’s hard to make anything that hits theater screens for that little. A $10 million opening may not seem like much, but it’s already made 100 times its budget.

The second thing? The actors do a job. They’re not great, but they’re not bad. The roles are thankless and the filmmakers aren’t giving them much to work with. Pfeifer Brown, who plays Pfeifer, is particularly solid and helps carry the film during stretches when it’s otherwise collapsing in on itself.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section uses the Bechdel Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film. Read why I’m including this section here.

1. Does The Gallows have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Pfeifer Brown plays Pfeifer. Cassidy Gifford plays Cassidy.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. Mostly, Pfeifer and Cassidy scream about how sociopathic the other one is, but that’s OK. That’s mostly what the men scream at each other, too. When men and women scream between the sexes, it’s equal opportunity sociopathy all around.

In fact, the ghost strangling people doesn’t get much mention. Mostly, these sociopaths really just want the other sociopaths to know how sociopathic they are before they get strangled.

It’s like watching four teenage Daniel Plainviews each drinking the others’ milkshakes and shouting, “I drink your milkshake!” For an hour and a half. Except half the time we’re staring at the floor.

Right, Bechdel Test. The Gallows does fine along these lines. Women are represented as well as the men here. No particular gender issues are reinforced, and none are undermined.

Please never make me watch this again.

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3 thoughts on “Without a Scare in the World — “The Gallows””

    1. If only these kids were terrified by it.

      Really, the best Harry Potter spin-off I can think of would be a bunch of Muggles breaking into the school during summer break and trying to make sense of the place while being chased around by a Dementor.

      Like

      1. Proposed: a horror movie in which four kids, suspecting that something is up with their new school, take four cameras into it, where they are terrified by inexplicable supernatural horrors and one by one picked off and murdered. One escapes with all of the footage, intending to put it together and show it to the world.

        At the end, a scene in which the lone survivor confronts the principle of the school and kills him, only the effects are cheesy and bad, followed by out-takes from “the production”, in which the principle is alive and smiling (assrt’d teachers, &c) and the “survivor” is present but clearly deeply unnvered. The end sequence is clearly meant to indicate that the whole thing was a student film, but its numerous technical discrepancies make it obvious that it is a post-facto edit applied to the found “real” footage in order to obviate its meaning.

        Serves as both a commentary on how institutional education destroys humanity, and how the popular media machine commodifies and absorbs any messages of dissent.

        Liked by 1 person

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