How low can you go? How low can you go? This ever seems to be the moto of some horror films as they play budget limbo. Let alone being the next shoestring financed mega success like Blaire Witch or Paranormal Activity, even moderate success from such a small nest egg can become an insanely rewarding investment. This year’s cyber killer, Unfriended, raked in 48 times its modest $1 million budget. So the problem becomes that with so many people trying to make a whole lot of something from nothing, how do you make sure yours will succeed? You go viral. You get people excited with some creepy test footage or an unrelated ominous teaser (that’s right Cloverfield, we’re looking at you) and let people get excited about what the film could be rather than actually is. The next film trying to rope in the crowds with such teases is The Gallows. Costing just $100k to make (yes, that does mean found footage), can this high school haunting put a strangle hold on the competition? Not tightly but it marks its mark. It offers some great tense scares once it gets going but the surrounding teen dramas and annoying cast are just dead weight.
20 years ago, during the performance of a school play, The Hangman, drama geek Charlie was accidentally killed on stage. Now, the students of Beatrice High School are resurrecting the play to honor the accidents anniversary. But when the young leads of Reese (Reese Houser – Youthful Daze), Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown – debut) and their friends Ryan (Ryan shoos – As Night Comes) and Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford – God’s Not Dead) get trapped in the school one night, the ghosts of the past prove fatally hard to shake off.
The above low budget point is crucial because underneath it all, The Gallows has a good horror story. Its primary location of the school theatre is naturally creepy and unsettling. The setup of the play provides good foreshadowing and it does deliver some fulfilling end twists and reveals. Yet the production that debut directors Travis Cluff & Chris Lofing have delivered all too often feels like it could have been done much better. Now, the pair clearly understand their genre because The Gallows does provide deliver that all important (and all too often disregarded) horror key ingredient: tension. Once the first little sign of supernatural creepiness occurs, there’s a great, near constant, feeling that something could happen to one of the characters. The darkness of blacked out school twinned with the red emergency lighting becomes incredibly atmospheric and holds us, as an audience, within the character’s mindsets of nervous unease. Screw the noose, shadows are this film’s weapon of choice and wielded with lethal visual effect. Although occasionally it over-does the image blurring and distortion techniques; in most cases, the found footage/handheld camera techniques serve the film well with the 1st person perspective allowing for some good shock scares. In terms of the critical justification issue (why do the characters start and continue to film?), it’s a mixed bag. Even if predominant camera man Ryan is the self documentarian type, bringing a camera while breaking and entering for vandalism seems a bit too dumb even for him. That said, once the setup is in place, the lack of power makes the cameras the only sources of light and it makes complete sense to keep them on. It also gets bonus points for letting the cameras run out of battery in a good put shot at a genre cliche. Much of the 4some roaming around the darkened school works well but occasionally, there’s the feeling of repetitiveness that some more seasoned guidance may have been able to avoid.
So with the horror elements performing, what else could be wrong? That would be high school/teen drama setup opening act powered by an underwhelming and all too often annoying cast. Much of the early work done to endear the main characters to us is wasted because they don’t feel worth caring about. Ryan’s near constant cameraman commentary gets beyond grating and his bullying rivalry with the play’s geeky stage manager adds nothing more than some bad stereotypes. We’re pledged a pair of romances between the main four, but feel neither of them. In fact, the whole opening 20-30 minutes feels like the worst parts of Project X. In short, it’s in desperate need of a better talented cast and at least a couple of known faces to sell these scenes and make them feel an organic part of the film rather than just anticipation building padding. It's exactly what a higher budget production could have achieved.
So what we have here is essentially a good painting in an ugly frame. It’s a creepy and unnerving supernatural horror film with considerable talent behind the camera but when it counts, there's not enough in front of it. It will undoubtedly be a profitable venture (it reportedly already is from US midnight screenings alone) and may even have sequel/franchise potential. It’s comparable to last year’s As Above So Below in terms of just above average enjoyment. It’s suited to hardened horror fans as some moments maybe too much for more causal goers. The Gallows may not be as well hung as it would like but it’s a show that still deserves some applause.