With the release of Paranormal Activity, the stock of Blumhouse and producer Jason Blum has skyrocketed. That seems to be a strange thing to say about someone who cut his teeth working under Bob and Harvey Weinstein and who counts Steve Martin as a family friend, but with the Paranormal Activity franchise raking in money hand over fist with every release—even Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones made a big profit—and multiple successful horror franchises in Sinister and Insidious, it’s pretty clear to see that Jason Blum has become a force in modern horror. Like him or not, his ability to take a clever idea, shoot it on the cheap, and turn it into a bag full of money is something Hollywood hasn’t seen since the glory days of Roger Corman.
Suffice it to say, Blum has a nose for talent and the clout to do something with the talent he finds. So it goes with The Gallows, another film in the Blumhouse tradition of taking traditional horror ideas and wringing new life out of them. In the amusingly named town of Beatrice, Nebraska (a real town), the local high school has a pretty strong drama department. Every year they put on a play, but back in 1993, a horrible accident occurred. During a staging of a play called The Gallows, a drama geek named Charlie found himself on the wrong end of an accident. The prop gallows on the stage became a real gallows, and Charlie was killed in front of the whole student body. Fortunately for us, the whole thing was captured on video.
Years later, in honour of the tragedy, theater queen Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown) has convinced the school to finish what they started in 1993 by re-staging The Gallows for the 20th anniversary of Charlie’s death. Hunky ex-football player Reese (Reese Mishler) isn’t much of an actor, but he’s nice to look at, so he’s taking on the lead role. Alongside Reese are his camera-obsessed friend and fellow football player Ryan (Ryan Shoos) and Ryan’s cheerleader girlfriend Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford). The two jocks hatch a plan to sneak into the theater at night and trash the sets, to spare Reese the embarrassment of being terrible on stage. Of course, this is the same stage that Charlie died on 20 years previously, and there are reconstructed gallows on the stage, and if you can’t tell where this is going, you’re too young to watch this movie.
The Gallows is the debut picture for directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing. They’ve worked on short films together, but making the jump from a short to a feature is a huge deal, particularly when the two of you are doing pretty much all the work. Cluff and Lofing were the directors and the credited writers. Cluff worked as a visual effects assistant on the film; Lofing was a producer and visual effects person. Cluff also took on the role of drama teacher Mr. Schwendiman. Of course, most first-timers don’t have the experienced team of Blumhouse behind them, which had to help ease the transition and make things a little easier on the pair.
Of course, it helps that the plot is very thin, and the dialogue is pretty standard. The visuals can be a bit muddy, and the movie depends entirely too much on shaking cameras during transitional scenes, pausing only to put the camera down on a non-moving flat surface when a scare or a teased scare was ready to pop out. The film makes good use of shadows and back-lighting, particularly to show off the hangman’s noose that is Charlie’s weapon of choice. Let’s just say there were times I had to look away.
However, to the film’s credit, when it’s time to deploy the scares, it’s effective. For a film with a comparatively short running time (80 minutes) and low body count, The Gallows can be quite menacing when it wants to be. There’s just a lot of camera jiggling that I could have done without in between those quiet, scary moments. The Paranormal Activity-style watermark and acknowledgments don’t really add to the impression that this is a real ‘found footage’ movie, but the use of infrared and red-washed low lighting film is good, as is the fact that the cameras/phones/whatever actually run out of battery power. That’s a weird little realistic touch that makes up for all the ‘I don’t have cell service!’ that pops up. (Then again, in rural Nebraska, I’d imagine not having service is a common problem, and any big concrete building is going to have awful service anyway.)
The Gallows is going to make money; in fact, it’s already made significantly more than it cost to film and market in midnight Thursday showings in the States. That Blumhouse can take a no-budget movie and turn it into something that rakes in cash isn’t surprising. What is surprising is that The Gallows, despite showing a lot of its best moments in the trailers, is still able to deliver those shocks effectively in the context of the film. That’s kind of an impressive feat. You know it’s coming, and when it happens, it’s still kind of a surprise.
It’s far from the best work to come out of Blumhouse, but as far as summer horror movies go, there have been much worse. If you’re looking to watch teenagers act repulsively, then get strangled to death, you’ll probably enjoy The Gallows. It contains enough well-executed scares to make up for its relative lack of depth and creativity.
US Correspondent Ron Hogan is impressed by the quality of the makeup used in this film to make the ligature marks. Plus it’s fun to say ‘ligature marks’ outside of a scary news context. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.
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