There's something a little unnerving about a film where all of the main players have the same first name as the actors and actresses who play them. I mean, seriously. I picture the cast sitting around early in pre-production rehearsals whining to the director "What's my name again? I just can't remember it."
"It's Ryan, just like your first name," I picture co-directors Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff saying to Ryan Shoos as he practices finding the "on" button on his video camera for the 3,000th time while mumbling "They didn't teach us this in acting class."
So the story goes.
The Gallows rests on a simple yet fairly intriguing premise and New Line served up enough of a promising trailer that the film looks like it could have worked and maybe even should've worked.
It doesn't work.
Taking place in a Nebraska high school, The Gallows was the name of a high school production that resulted in tragedy twenty years earlier that led to the death of its lead actor during a stage mishap. Fast forward 20 years and the same high school, for reasons that defy logic, is bringing back The Gallows for a one-night performance starring the school's top jock, Reese (Reese Mishler), whose primary motivation appears less about recreating a historically ill-fated production and more about getting the attention of co-star Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown), the school's resident drama queen.
You thought I was kidding about the first name thing, didn't you?
With only one night before the show must go on, it's obvious that it's all headed for disaster as Reese has proven to be quite the bad actor (typecast again, eh?) who hasn't quite learned all of his lines yet. To help Reese save face, the aforementioned Ryan concocts a fail-proof plan to break into the school and trash the set. Without enough time to rebuild, the show will most assuredly not be able to go on. Joined by the school's cheerleader, Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford, Kathie Lee's daughter), the three break in but their efforts are interrupted by Pfeifer. Within minutes, their efforts at vandalism have been mysteriously repaired and the doors around them locked.
Is someone with them? Has the ghost of Charlie Grimille, the victim of the tragedy from 20 years ago, returned? Is there some other mystery at play here?
Better yet. Can anyone in the film actually remember their name?
Does anyone actually care?
As a film writer who regularly reviews the indie horror scene, I find myself constantly baffled by those independent horror films that somehow find their way into the Hollywood machinery. What was there about The Gallows that made some studio exec at New Line, the indie arm of Warner Brothers, decide it was worthy of a national distribution deal? I've seen at least a half dozen indie horror flicks in 2015 alone that are vastly superior to The Gallows.
What gives? Did the exec really just want a legit excuse to meet Kathie Lee Gifford?
Was the studio exec as irritated by the character of Ryan as the rest of us and wanted to make sure as many people as possible watched his deserving death?
Sorry if that deserved a spoiler alert.
The Gallows is a decent idea looking for a decent film. It never finds one. The film's first half is plagued by the presence of Ryan, one of indie horror's most godawful characters to be found in quite some time. There's really hardly a moment where you're not sitting in your seat praying for his violent death. I know. That's evil, but I'm serious.
The same is largely true for Cassidy Gifford's Cassidy, an irritating little wench worthy of an untimely demise. It's the kind of performance where you picture Kathie Lee quietly having dinner with her daughter after the screening going "Oh, honey. You were so wonderful. I was completely scared" while later that night weeping into her pillow and shouting aloud "Where did I go wrong?"
Indeed. It's a legit question.
The film is a Blumhouse production, makers of Paranormal Activity and Insidious, so I suppose it's easy to understand why the folks at New Line would give the film a chance. After all, it's not like bad horror has never made big bucks before. Even for fans of these types of Dead Teenager horror flicks, The Gallows is a disappointment. While the film gets some breathing room once Ryan thankfully leaves the picture, The Gallows wears out its welcome quickly even with its slight 80-minute running time.
With recent indie horror films like The Babadook, It Follows, and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the indie horror scene has had a vibrancy and creative spark as of late that has breathed new life into the genre. The Gallows, as a result, is even more disappointing. There's one particularly compelling scene that makes you realize that The Gallows could have been a much better film. Instead, it's pretty close to insidious.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic