“Every school has its spirit,” the film’s tagline reads in blood-red letters on the Blu-ray/DVD case.
Like its tagline, “The Gallows” is clever and fun, but it’s also a chilling reminder of the countless schools synonymous with death. Unfortunately, the film’s gimmicky style ultimately overshadows its timely substance.
The film’s high school setting is instantly tied to tragedy. Students avoid letting the name Charlie Grimille drop in the halls of the drama department — where he died from a prop malfunction decades earlier. Like Columbine, his name pierces the airwaves.
The hazy video recording of Charlie’s onstage death is the film’s most effective use of the found-footage format. It not only transports viewers back to the camcorder days of the ’90s. It reminds us why we gravitate toward found-footage — to catch mayhem interrupting the mundane. At its best, the style evokes a startling sense of discovery. As Charlie hangs lifelessly from a prop noose and screams rumble through the theater, we discover — yet again — that schools are all too vulnerable to horror.
The dully ominous footage leading up to Charlie’s death reminded me of the stage collapse caught on camera at a high school near my home a few months ago. This unsettling opening sequence has the sort of authentic feel missing from most films in this subgenre of horror.
While most horror movies give us the thrill of witnessing terror from a safe distance, found-footage films aim for you-are-there immediacy, pushing us into the abyss. Unfortunately, the found footage in “The Gallows” grows distracting rather than immersive.
The film follows a group of teens as they break into the school the night before the 20-year revival of the play in which Charlie died. They try to destroy the set in order to get their friend Reese (Reese Mishler) out of the cursed production. Of course, the ghost of Charlie ruins their plans.
The camera gimmick works for a while. It’s their only source of light in the school, and the obnoxious Ryan (Ryan Shoos) hopes to catch a glimpse of Charlie’s ghost. But when the real scares start coming, the camera seems too steady and focused, and you’ll wonder who’s holding it.
A haunted high school is an incredibly evocative setting for a horror film, especially now after so many schools have become gravesites. The story has plenty of substance. Unfortunately, writer-directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing bury it under a poorly executed style.
The behind-the-scenes featurette sheds some interesting light on their inspiration for the film. (Cluff drew upon his experience pulling pranks on students when he was a drama teacher.)
The Blu-ray combo pack also includes the original version of the film that caught the attention of producer Jason Blum (“Paranormal Activity,” “Insidious”). But it’s not as different from the theatrical version as I had hoped.
There are seeds of a great movie in “The Gallows.” It’s not top-shelf horror, but it’s certainly worthy of being included in your horror marathon this Halloween season.
Film: 3.5 Yaps
Extras: 3 Yaps