Sixteen years later, we’re still living in the shadow of The Blair Witch Project. That found-footage horror film was revolutionary in its day, but somewhat inevitably, its techniques have reached into other genres and become a stylistic crutch for filmmakers. (If you don’t believe me, treat yourself to a double feature of Into the Storm and Project Almanac. Have strong coffee on hand.) The Gallows is the latest found-footage horror film, and while it’s not great, it is still brutally effective in stretches.
Much like The Blair Witch Project, this film features a cast of unknown actors whose characters share their first names. It’s set at a high school in Beatrice, Neb., where the drama department is putting on a Revolutionary War play called The Gallows. Our video guide backstage is an extremely dislikable tech (Ryan Shoos) who’s participating to fulfill an elective requirement and make fun of his lead-actor buddy (Reese Mishler), who quit the football team to pursue his crush on the self-absorbed lead actress (Pfeifer Brown). Oozing contempt for the theater nerds he’s thrown in with and knowing that Reese is a terrible actor, Ryan and his girlfriend (Cassidy Gifford) convince Reese to help them break into the theater late one night and sabotage the set. However, some mysteriously self-locking doors trap them and Pfeifer in the auditorium with something that doesn’t like them.
This is by the writing-directing team of Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing. (Cluff also appears on screen as the drama teacher.) They give the story a nice macabre cast at the beginning, with a grainy VHS-like prologue set in 1993 depicting the school staging the same play, only for a prop malfunction to get a student actor killed onstage. The darkened theater where that incident happened makes for a properly menacing setting when lights start coming on and backstage ropes start pulling themselves. The constant stumbling block of found-footage films is “Why are these characters continuing to record video when they should be running for their lives?” Cluff and Lofing get around this neatly by having Ryan’s camera be one of the only light sources for our characters to see their way by.
This all means The Gallows hums along nicely through its first half. However, when the villain does appear on camera, it isn’t particularly scary, and the revelation of one character’s motives at the end makes no sense. The fear here doesn’t reach any deeper than the person chasing our characters down hallways with a rope. The movie is never as ingenious as the first Paranormal Activity movie, and it doesn’t resonate with any deeper themes like Unfriended, a better film that’s scarcely more sophisticated in its techniques. For all that, it’s telling that the best recent horror flicks have gone other routes than found-footage: The Babadook, It Follows, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. It’s probably time for horror filmmakers to express themselves in other ways.
Starring Reese Mishler and Pfeifer Brown. Written and directed by Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing. Rated R.[/box_info]