There is exactly one truly creepy sequence in the entirety of The Gallows, the latest in a string of exhausting horror flicks courtesy of producer Jason Blum (Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Ouija). The scene in question finds terrified cheerleader Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford, daughter of Kathie Lee) desperately trying to regain her composure after boyfriend Ryan (Ryan Shoos) disappears and strange ligature marks begin to appear around her neck. As she weeps in the audience’s direction, a hooded figure begins to emerge from the shadows behind her—silently, steadily, with the same eerie calm that Michael Myers possessed back when the horror revolution began. It’s a remarkably tense, quietly terrifying 90 seconds of film that acts as both a respite from the chaos and a reminder that the simplest scares are the best.
The key word above is “steadily,” which is not an apt descriptor for the rest of the action in The Gallows. This is another found-footage movie that, with a little art direction and some actual cinematography, could easily have been a decent little terrorizer. Instead, it comes mostly unglued thanks to its hacky gimmick. The story is reasonably compelling: A high school drama club is staging a play called The Gallows that was last performed 20 years prior and ended in the accidental death of one of its performers. Former football player Reese (Reese Mishler) isn’t very good in the lead role, but he’s gutting through it in order to woo co-star and queen bee Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown). Reese’s best friend Ryan, who is inexplicably recording everything, hatches a plan: Along with Cassidy, he’ll help Reese break into the school after hours and dismantle the set, thus making the one-night-only performance impossible and saving Reese from the humiliation of the stage.
That’s a remarkably stupid premise to get our characters together in one place, and the early scares are pedestrian haunted house stuff: doors that lock mysteriously, strange noises, and at least one television that turns on by itself. In fact, the first hour of The Gallows is made insufferable by Ryan, who acts as the cameraman and narrates the action. Even for a teen in a middling scream-fest, he’s particularly obnoxious, and his stream-of-consciousness vacillates between lunkheaded juvenilia and observations that are remarkably convenient to the plot. There is one upside: Ryan’s violent exit from the film is one of the most satisfying dispatches of a horror teen in recent memory.
It might just be a coincidence, but Ryan’s departure lets The Gallows breathe easier. The late twists actually carry some weight, the murderous apparition becomes more visceral, and the final sequence—again, filmed with a still camera—is genuinely unnerving. Even the coda, which in these types of movies is often a cheap and banal suggestion of a sequel, works better than most. But for all its potential and almost-hits, The Gallows is still only about 22 percent of a good movie and only slightly more refined than your average high school production of The Crucible. C