The Gallows is like a feature length argument for why found footage needs to die, chock full of absolutely everything that’s wrong with the first-person formula. It isn’t completely without merit, and there’s some great stuff in here, but given how cool the idea is, the movie itself is a massive disappointment. This thing never should have made it to theaters.
Now let me be clear: When done right, I love found footage. But it’s also a gimmick that can very easily be screwed up and become tiresome, and The Gallows is the perfect example of that. Let’s run through a few of the annoyances of found footage movies, because they’re all present here.
First there’s the filler, the tendency to waste the audience’s time with a bunch of footage of the characters goofing off for no real purpose. Yup, that’s all in The Gallows! This is an 81 minute movie, and probably a solid 40 minutes of that doesn’t need to exist — a bunch of annoying, shitty people running around at school and throwing footballs at each other.
Then there’s the fact that so many of these films rely entirely on cheap scares, with a character walking down a dark hallway only for there to be a sudden loud noise. Sometimes the footage will quickly cut to another LOUD scene, and just the way the film is edited is actually the scare. Not only does The Gallows do this, but I can’t recall a single frightening moment in the whole movie that isn’t cheap. At one point, the camera is pointed at a wall for about 15 seconds before a dude jumps up and yells BOO. There is no reason for him to be doing this except that the filmmakers know no other way to startle us. It’s the literal definition of cheap, and it’s the exact moment the film lost me.
Third, most found-footage movies have really shitty characters, moreso than your typical horror film, and oh boy does The Gallows meet that criteria. The guy holding the camera, Ryan, may in fact be the most annoying protagonist I have ever run across in a horror film, and yes, that’s saying a lot. I hated this man so much, and there is not a word that comes out of his useless fucking mouth that doesn’t make me want to punch him repeatedly. Don’t get me wrong, all four characters are dreadful, but Ryan takes the cake.
Then there’s all the weird moments in these films where the characters shouldn’t be holding the camera but they continue to do so. The Gallows is one of the worst offenders in that category in years, and rarely does the movie ever try to justify why the hell they’re filming anything. It kind of goes for the classic excuse that they need to use the camera light to see, but that doesn’t even really work because it’s not like they need to be recording for that.
No, Ryan picks up the camera at the beginning and starts filming everything because the script needs him to. When he and his friends break into their school and are doing something that will get them expelled, Ryan records the entire thing because…well, that’s what’s in the script. At one point towards the end, a character is hugging another character as they’re possibly going to die, and he is holding the camera with one arm extended in the air and filming his own face like he’s taking a selfie. What the hell?
The vast majority of the dialogue is cringeworthy and not at all the way people speak;, When The Gallows needs you to understand a plot point, it’s sure going to explain everything out loud to make certain you get it. In the opening scene, the characters essentially say “Boy, that guy Charlie, the character you need to be paying attention to, is really doing a good job in this play, even though he’s filling in for someone else! Hey, the gallows look really good! Pay attention to those!” I’m only slightly paraphrasing.
All in all it just feels like a movie that should have come out in 2010, not 2015. It still wouldn’t have been great then, but it’s even more out of place now in a time when we’ve seen all of these gimmicks over and over and over. Some filmmakers have realized the flaws of found footage and responded to them appropriately, like the team behind V/H/S constantly reinventing the wheel. But The Gallows just has no shame churning out the same bullshit you’ve seen again and again with no take or creative spin.
And backing up a bit, the movie is full of questionable ideas beyond the gimmick itself. The whole premise is that 20 years ago, this school performed a play and a prop malfunction lead to one of the students’ death. Now, 20 years later, the same school is putting on that same play again, and doing the same scene that caused Charlie to die. What the fuck kind of sick school would be redoing the same play that a kid died during not that long ago? Like, it was recent enough for all the friends and family of the dead kid to still be alive? Nobody in the movie seems to find that strange or in bad taste.
Now to be fair, a lot of the problems I’ve talked about are present in found footage movies that I’ve loved, so a lot of this is just a case of this gimmick having gotten stale. And no, the Gallows isn’t without its occasional highlight. I love the concept of Charlie as a villain, and the very few times we actually do see him, I was on board. If the filmmakers were willing to spend more time actually on Charlie, I could see him becoming a memorable horror icon, and maybe he still could if this gets a sequel.
There are a handful neat individual scenes, too, almost all of which come during the last act. In particular, the hallway scene, featured prominently in the trailers and on the poster, is well done. It’s clear why the marketing department latched on to that, because it’s by far the best visual in the movie and seems like something out of a much scarier film.
So no, The Gallows isn’t the worst thing ever, and if you check it out streaming on Netflix in a few months, you might even find a few things to appreciate. But that’s what it feels like: an okay movie you’d catch on Netflix, not a major theatrical release in between big films like Insidious 3 and Sinister 2. It’s profoundly stupid, with some awful characters, terrible cliches, and truly lazy scares. Found footage newcomers might get the occasional thrill, but if you’re getting tired of that gimmick, The Gallows is just a constant reminder of why the tricks have grown stale. It made me feel nostalgic for even the later Paranormal Activity sequels, and that’s not a good sign.