Just when I think the “genre” of found-footage can’t get any worse — which is typically while I’m suffering through the previous found-footage movie — I am proven wrong by the next one. But The Gallows isn’t merely a new low in a filmmaking gimmick that has long since been played out: it might be the best-worst example yet of how lazy filmmakers seem to think shaky handheld cinematography and a faux accidental-documentary facade is a substitute for a well-written script that tells a coherent story populated by characters we enjoy spending time with, even if it’s only in a love-to-hate-them way. And it’s a great-bad example of the cynicism of Hollywood: New Line picked up this low-budget indie film (it was produced for a reported $100,000), gave it a splashy wide release in prime summertime, and has cleaned up on it (the film has earned $18 million so far in the U.S. and Canada alone). CinemaScore’s audience polls give it a grade of C, which is the worst score most movies ever get, and generally means that even generous, uncritical mainstream audiences don’t like it. (My fellow critics hate The Gallows too.) When bad movies — really bad movies — can be smart business decisions, is it any wonder we get so many bad movies?
The writer-director team of Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing should be embarrassed to be seen attempting to pass off this particular bad movie as a “movie” at all; of course, they got a nice payday and a step up in Hollywood instead. The Gallows features unpleasant characters doing things that make no sense — such as showing up in the first place in locations they’re not supposed to be for no apparent reason at all — documented in footage that is supposedly now being held as police evidence yet which has clearly been edited together from multiple camera sources (I lost track after counting one static camera in a high-school auditorium, one handheld camcorder, and one cell phone). The high-school drama club in a school in Nebraska is about to debut the production of a (terrible-looking) play about (I’m guessing here) colonial America that, during a production 20 years earlier, resulted in the accidental death of a student onstage in front of a packed audience of students and parents, when a prop gallows somehow actually hanged him. As four students sneaking around the school late at night discover, the angry ghost of that dead student has been loitering on school property for two decades waiting for the chance for revenge.
If I were to call The Gallows Waiting for Guffman meets The Blair Witch Project, that would make it sound infinitely more intriguing than it is, which is none intriguing at all. This is little more than four generic Movie Teens (ie, blandly pretty twentysomething actors) running around unlit high-school corridors while random bangs echo from the shadows… when we’re not just looking at running feet, that is. Reese (Reese Mishler) is the football player turned onstage leading man who took a role in the play because he’s got a crush on drama (club) queen Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown), but his best friend Ryan (Ryan Shoos) is a major asshole and convinces Reese, weak-willed sap that he is, to help him and Ryan’s girlfriend Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford) sabotage the play by destroying the set the night before opening; Pfeifer shows up in the middle of their vandalism because… well, there is no good reason for it, which the movie hopes you won’t realize. Ryan has brought along his video camera because he has had the brilliant idea that they record their crimes, because there’s no way that could become a problem for them. Of course, teens do do stupid things like video themselves committing the most awful of offenses, but even that level of reality appears not to have occurred to the filmmakers. There is no suggestion here of an indictment of thoughtless, lack-of-impulsive-control adolescent wrongdoing — the movie celebrates it, in fact, and imagines that we are sympathizing with Ryan. (Why do all the characters share the same names as the actors? I have suspicions about this, and none of them connect to a plan to create distinctive fictional characters portrayed by convincing performers.)
It’s mostly too dark to see anything onscreen, not that there’s much of anything to see most of the time: the film is only 80 minutes long, and yet most of that runtime consists of dull exposition and forced backstory (can’t do flashbacks when you’re pretending to be found-footage!) only occasionally “relieved” by Ryan’s obnoxiousness. Eventually, we come to a finale that relies on these four characters not being familiar with a legendary episode of school history that everyone will have clearly been talking about in great and intimate detail, what with the fatal play being mounted again, and also with a mismatch of timing that kills the plot flat. It’s the most dangerous aspect of this infuriatingly negligent excuse for storytelling.