You can be sure of three things about found-footage horror movies:
1) The Unsteadicam will bounce around, losing power or turning hazy at a crucial moment.
2) The characters will end up dead or insane (or, in rare occasions, possessed). Otherwise, we wouldn’t need found footage: Someone could narrate events.
3) At some point, you will ask, “Why would someone still be holding a camera now?” and/or “How is it possible for the camera to capture this shot?”
So when we’re told “The Gallows” consists of video discovered by the police of Beatrice, Neb. – a real place, the county seat of Gage County – we can guess the outcome to some extent. What we can’t guess is how cleverly writer-directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing will mess with this well-established genre.
The title refers to a play about colonial times done at a high school in 1993. Though a student accidentally gets hanged onstage, the school decides to revives this play on its 20th anniversary (yes, that’s absurd), and the vengeful dead kid intervenes.
Cluff and Lofing follow the “Blair Witch Project” template. The actors have the same names as their characters, and the story’s supposedly based on a real incident. Cluff and Lofing even dedicate their film to the “late” Charlie Grimille. (There’s a huge online campaign to get us to believe there really was a Charlie who got hanged and, perhaps, triggered deaths later – and, of course, an equally virulent debunking.)
The story stays simple: Ryan and Cassidy, a troublemaking jock and cheerleader (Ryan Shoos and Cassidy Gifford), have nothing but contempt for thespians. They decide to trash the set the night before opening and convince Reese (Reese Mishler) he’ll be so bad as the leading man that he should help them and avoid humiliation.
When they sneak into the school, they bump into Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown), the play’s leading lady. She has followed them in to find out why Reese’s car is in the parking lot. Soon doors lock behind them, and nooses turn up in strange places.
Cluff, Lofing and cinematographer Edd Lukas do just about everything right. The film has plot twists, including an ambiguous double-whammy at the end. It lasts just 81 minutes and doesn’t overextend the story. Most of it takes place in “real time”; by the end, characters get drenched in sweat, snot and tears. Not blood, however: The movie’s free of gore. The worst thing we see is a bizarre rope burn that suddenly appears around a neck.
The well-cast actors convince us they might be 19, and the realistically drab high school throws us back to our own times within similar walls. In the first 20 minutes, we see the petty rivalries and jealousies, the cruelty that springs from insecurity and ignorance, the rampant immaturity that makes kids flail around like fools. Even before the scares begin, we’re in a horror movie of a kind most of us know personally.
Tense found-footage film about a dead thespian terrorizing the living cleverly plays to expectations and occasionally confounds them.
B+ STARS: Reese Mishler, Ryan Shoos, Pfeifer Brown, Cassidy Gifford.
WRITERS-DIRECTORS: Travis Cluff, Chris Lofing.
RUNNING TIME: 81 minutes.
RATING: R (some disturbing violent content and terror).