The world may not exactly need another horror movie about mean, unpleasant teenagers picked off one by one by an unstoppable, possibly supernatural antagonist, but Blumhouse (the low-budget production house behind the Insidious, The Conjuring, and Sinister franchises) gives us one anyway. In The Gallows, a trio of high-school friends run afoul of a murderous force while trying to sabotage a revival performance of a school play whose previous run, twenty years earlier, was marred by the accidental death of the student in the lead role. It’s not too hard to work out where things go from there.
By no objective metric can The Gallows be considered a “good” movie. The attentive viewer can spot every plot beat five minutes before it actually happens. The script keeps character development to a minimum even by the standards of films populated entirely with stock characters: when one of the protagonist can’t put together a more imaginative put-down than “Hey drama nerd!” you know you’re in trouble. The second-act twist strains credulity (it is almost impossible for the character to not have the piece of information it depends on him not having) and the third-act twist, while not impossible, is highly unlikely in chronological terms. In this context, the film’s entirely extraneous found-footage format turns out the least annoying thing about the film.
Yet even despite these flaws, I have a hard time describing it as “bad” even though I certainly did not like it. There is an audience out there for slasher-type movies loaded down with jump-scares and populated with characters the viewer actively wants to see die. A certain minority of this audience might even do so sincerely. The gaggle of teenagers who shared the theater with me certainly seemed to believe that every scare, no matter how slight, was worthy of a blood-curdling shriek.
Plus, the principal cast of twenty-something actors who look almost, but not quite, young enough to be actual high school students–Reese Mishler, Pfiefer Brown, Ryan Shoos, and Cassidy Gifford playing characters named (you guessed it) Reese, Pfiefer, Ryan, and Cassidy–sell the material for more than it’s worth. If the filmmakers mean for the latter two to have any redeeming traits whatsoever, nobody bothered to tell Shoos and Gifford–and I have to admit, if somebody can make me loathe completely fictional characters this much, that’s some sort of accomplishment.
For that matter, the same can be said for writing-directing team Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing. Much like the later installments in Blumhouse’s tentpole Paranormal Activity franchise, The Gallows is a mediocrity but it’s a well-directed and well-edited mediocrity, with the jump-scares executed with textbook precision and a surprising amount of atmosphere wrenched out of its modern high-school setting. (The one issue I have here is the point of exactly when the main camcorder dies and the students start filming everything on their cell phones. For that matter, I’d like to know why they start filming everything on their cell phones.)
Neither good enough to be good nor bad enough to be bad, The Gallows has one saving grace: it offers numerous opportunities for the audience to scream at the characters how stupid they are. But don’t approach it looking for a “serious” attempt at horror.