The Gallows (2015)

The mainstream press would have you believe that found footage has had its day, that it hasn’t been good since The Blair Witch Project and that it should just go off and die somewhere already. This is because movies like Willow Creek, The Borderlands, etc. usually aren’t afforded theatrical releases and, therefore, the majority of film critics base their judgement of the sub-genre off the Paranormal Activity series, The Devil Inside, and every other wannabe Blair Witch that’s been foisted upon the multiplex.

Horror fans know better than to write off found footage. Without it, we wouldn’t have some of the coolest and most innovative movies of the past fifteen years. Filmmakers wouldn’t be consistently pushing boundaries, or creating new ways of capturing movement (GoPros attached to helmets, in V/H/S 2, for example) that force us into the driver’s seat and make the experience of watching a horror movie more personal. In the case of The Gallows, they’ve gone back to the basics of found footage and the result is far creepier than anything with the word “paranormal” or “exorcism” in the title.

The setup is simple; twenty years after a student was accidentally hanged during a school production of the titular play, some dope thinks it’s a good idea to stage the bloody thing again, with a whole new cast of victims, and has roped in (excuse the pun) the jock to play the lead. This angers his obnoxious best mate (also a jock, obviously) who, armed with a handheld camera, sets out to stop the play from happening. After convincing his buddy a bit too easily, they break into the school after hours to destroy the set and, before too long, find themselves in grave danger.

The Gallows is less than 90 minutes long, a bravely snappy running time that demands it get things moving quickly. At first, it plods along, with obnoxious Ryan (Ryan Shoos – all actors use their real first names) narrating the story for what feels like forever. However, the flick is clever enough to spend about twenty minutes setting everything up before unleashing a full hour of white-knuckle terror. Once things start to get spooky, there’s no respite and regardless of whether you think the premise is contrived (it is) there’s no escaping the tension it elicits.

This is old-school horror for a modern audience. The setting is perfectly established in the opening moments, the high school feeling uncomfortably real, and when the lights go down those familiar hallways suddenly feel labyrinthine. First-time writer-directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing understand that, when it comes to horror – particularly found footage – less is more. What’s seldom shown is often more terrifying than what is fully seen; heavy footsteps overhead, inanimate objects moving by themselves and ghostly shadows, when done correctly, can provoke much more terror than loads of violence.

When it comes to the rough stuff, The Gallows is conservative. Nasty without being gory, its scariest moments are also the quietest – and thankfully, nobody feels the need to fill the silence by explaining what’s going on to us. One particular sequence, bathed in eerie red light, was actually used to market the film which, given it’s one of the most effective, seems like utter madness. Thankfully, there’s plenty more to enjoy here and, unlike the spoiler-heavy Sinister trailer, The Gallows doesn’t completely give away its ace card.

TV spots for the movie attempted to set up the villain, Charlie, as the next Jason or Freddy. Although he looks scary in his executioner’s costume and his noose is an inventive weapon, we don’t see enough of him to really grasp his franchise potential. However, it is through these glimpses of Charlie that the character is established. And, aside from an ill-judged screamer ending, which is similar in tone to the recent Unfriended, he’s much more frightening hiding in the shadows than right up in our faces.

This is becoming a trend with modern horror movies, and it’s really disheartening. Much like Unfriended, The Gallows is loaded with tension and frights but it ends on a bum note because, one assumes, the powers-that-be didn’t think it would please the multiplex crowd to leave any questions unanswered. As a result, the point is hammered home to a laughable extent that, sadly, means the overall experience isn’t quite as effective as it should be.

It’s a real shame because, otherwise, this is a solid, inventive and very memorable little chiller that spells good things for the duo behind it. Aside from the necessary plot contrivances, The Gallows utilises a great setting, stellar performances from a small cast of young, hungry actors, and a terrifically un-showy villain for maximum scare potential. Nodding to both Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity, it’s clear the filmmakers know they have something special on their hands, and their confidence in the material is key. See this with a late-night crowd and try not to watch it through your fingers.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

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