The Gallows (2015)

Theater actors are a notoriously superstitious bunch. Tradition and ritual rule back stage. God help the idiot who says the name of the Scottish play aloud. In that sense, why not make a horror film about a stage production? There’s plenty of material there. And in terms of theater, The Gallows gets a lot of things right. The majority of the film is spent backstage, in the dark, where things that looked innocuous during the day suddenly become strange and twisted – props that were once ridiculed are scary enough to make people scream. Though the camera does – unfortunately – get out of control in a few scenes, the majority of The Gallows has an excellent presence. It looks really cool, the sound design does its part to make things creepy and ominous even in seemingly benign scenes, and the actors did a surprisingly good job at humanizing unlikable characters. The Gallows tells a decent story, and the images are pleasant to look at.

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Logic, unfortunately, is not its strong point.

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Slasher films, especially the ones that fall into the found footage category, cannot be too complicated. The plot is not supposed to challenge or fool the audience. Giant twist endings can be fun, but only if properly foreshadowed and if they make sense with the internal logic of the story. The ending of The Gallows does not. It complicates what was already a decent ghost story by gluing on a conspiracy that isn’t explained well and doesn’t add anything interesting to the plot. It’s just…there.

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That being said, I enjoyed The Gallows more than I expected to. The characters are, in the best and worst ways, teenagers. They bully and scheme without realizing the consequences, but always with the underlying thought that eventually they will grow out of the prettiness and become empathetic human beings. That doesn’t excuse their behavior, just as the film doesn’t condone any of the things that the characters do to each other in the name of temporary amusement, but The Gallows does seem to understand that teenagers will do stupid shit just because. The film also understands that given the chance, said teenagers will grow out of it. Unfortunately, the inability to recognize that their actions have real, far-reaching consequences drives the majority of the plot. The whole reason the group is stuck backstage in the first place is a series of bad choices that initially started out as a joke. Teenagers do stupid stuff. And sometimes there are consequences to that.

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A theme like that could have made for a really interesting film, but sadly The Gallows never lets it out of the subtext. Oh well. It’s an entertaining film.

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My favorite character turned out to be the football jock I was prepared to hate at his introduction – Reese, whose willingness to punch anyone who gets in his way prevents him from being labeled as a nerd no matter how many faces he shoves his camera into. This is the type of stock character that has populated horror films for decades, introduced to bully and humiliate the other characters until finally getting his bloody comeuppance. It’s a credit to Reese Mishler’s acting that this character is given his most humanizing moment right before he is about to be killed, one of the films more tragic and fully realized notes. He might be self-centered and hypocritical now, but The Gallows implies – as it does for all of its young characters – that this is temporary, and Reese has the potential to become a decent adult once he matures a little. The understated tragedy of The Gallows, however, is that all of them are stuck in the situation because of who they are and what they have done right now. None of them were looking to the future. They aren’t given the chance to evolve. Unlike most horror films, which prefer stock tropes, The Gallows lets the kids to be flawed and self-centered, while still allowing the potential for them to grow in the future. If they survive.

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Which, as you can imagine, most of them do not.

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The Gallows is a decent entry into the found footage horror subgenre. The script could have used a few more drafts, however. There were interesting themes about growing up and learning empathy for others, but those messages were largely buried beneath the repeated scenes of screaming, hysterical teenagers. See it, but don’t expect anything mind-blowing.

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