Monday, July 27, 2015

Review: The Gallows (2015)

The Gallows (2015)

Rated R for some disturbing violent content and terror

There are bad horror movies, and then there's the second coming of The Haunting of Molly Hartley or Texas Chainsaw 3D. In case you couldn't guess by that comparison, The Gallows sucked. What few halfway-decent qualities it had were more than compensated for by utterly irredeemable characters, a story that takes far too long to get going, a parade of rote jump scares once it finally does start to get going, and to top it all off, one of the most brain-breakingly stupid twist endings I've seen in a long damn time. If all is just, this film will kill the whole "found footage" trend stone-dead, and maybe take the worn-out supernatural horror down with it, but unfortunately, this film was so cheap to make (a reported budget of $100,000) that it probably made its money back even in the face of empty theaters, so we can only hope that the marketing budget was big enough to cut that profit down to size. In a year that's given us far superior teen horror movies like It Follows and Unfriended, pandering pap like The Gallows has no excuse for being this bad.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, though, I will give credit to the one thing that this film did right: the setting. The events of the film all take place in a seemingly ordinary high school after hours, where a group of teenagers have broken in. The dark, empty halls, the maintenance areas, and the centerpiece of the action, the theater, are all remarkably creepy on their own, with little effort required on the part of the filmmakers. Every teenager has probably wondered what it was like inside their school after dark, and if nothing else, this film makes good on that promise. Sadly, writers/directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing seemed content to rest on the school's natural creepiness rather than do anything to exploit it, and furthermore, they have to contrive an excuse to have our dwindling party of teenagers in the school after hours.

This brings me to the plot and characters, the first of this film's many problems. You see, twenty years ago, the school's theater department performed a play called The Gallows, which went horribly awry when a student, Charlie Grimille, was accidentally hanged for real and died during the play's climatic execution scene. Now, the school is once again staging a production of The Gallows. Ryan, the asshole jock holding the camera for most of the film (remember: found footage), is trying to get his comparatively good-natured friend Reese out of it. Reese, who's playing the same character Charlie did that fateful night, doesn't want to do the play, and is only in it to impress Pfeifer, a cute girl who he has a crush on and who's playing the female lead. And so Ryan and his cheerleader girlfriend Cassidy present a "brilliant" idea to Reese: the night before the show opens, they're gonna sabotage the sets, forcing them to cancel the play, while Pfeifer, distraught over it all, runs into Reese's comforting arms. They do that, but things start going wrong when they run into Pfeifer at the school that night, there for reasons unknown. Before they can clear up any misunderstandings, however, weird shit starts going down, and before long, it's obvious that the ghost of Charlie is back and trying to kill them.

And the truth is, I was rooting for Charlie. I didn't just not care about these characters, I actively wanted them all to die. Ryan is the football player villain from any number of '80s teen comedies turned into, inexplicably, one of the heroes of a horror film, as he spends the entire first act engaging in "pranks" against his fellow classmates that show him to be an utterly loathsome human being. His friend Reese, meanwhile, is driven by his dick, while Cassidy may as well be a sexy lamp for all the development she gets before she's offed. I don't usually complain about one-note characters in a horror film, but when this film's protagonists are so thinly-written, and so easy to hate, you have to draw the line. The only good thing I could say is that their actors were decent overall, with none of them really stinking up the place, but when a number of other recent horror films -- and teen horror films, at that -- have managed to win my acclaim for their strong characters, there's no fucking excuse.

Next, we come to Charlie himself. The ads for this movie had a lot of gall in comparing Charlie to slasher icons like Jason, Michael, and Freddy, but to be honest, there were a number of things about his character that could've worked in better hands. His costume design and weapon of choice, a hangman's mask and a noose, are both original, and quite scary-looking in the few glimpses we catch of them. As it stands, though, he's just another mountain of wasted potential, in what's becoming a theme for this film. He only kills a small handful of people over the course of the film, and a number of these kills are almost completely offscreen, with only the shot of the poor sucker getting dragged away with a noose around his or her neck. Until the obligatory third-act "finding the dead bodies" scene, it barely even feels like they died. For an R-rated film, this was virtually bloodless. The kills could've been brutal, with victims getting their necks snapped or gasping for air as the noose crushes their throat, but there's never any payoff. And given how much I wanted to see these little pricks die, that's especially unfortunate here.

This wouldn't have been too much of a problem if there were any real tension, but if you've come this far, you know what I'm about to say. Only in a few scenes did Cluff and Lofing manage to create any sense of danger, and all too often, the film lets all the air out of the room just as it's built up a head of steam. The found footage style doesn't help the scares one bit, producing jerky visuals that unnecessarily restrict where the camera can go, without producing anything in the way of tension. There is a somewhat original twist during the second act where we see events from two different perspectives; for example, we watch from one camera held by the kids trying to rescue one of their buddies, then cut to the other camera held by that doomed friend as Charlie closes in on him. However, it's merely a gimmick, one that's never really capitalized on and which raises far more questions than anything else.

You may notice that, outside the plot description, I haven't said anything about Pfeifer. Well, there's a reason for that: I was saving the worst for last. The twist involving Pfeifer's character "elevates" this film from being just hopelessly bland and forgettable to being downright wretched. (Oh, and spoiler warning, if you care.) At the end of the film, with only Pfeifer and Reese still alive, we learn that Pfeifer is the daughter of Charlie and Alexis, his girlfriend at the time who's now been observing the progression of the school's latest production of The Gallows. Alexis is a minor throwaway character who shows up in the beginning and disappears just as quickly, with no indication that she's evil. She and Pfeifer are plotting to kill Reese as revenge on his father, who we learn in the second act was the man who originally played the guy who was hanged; he couldn't perform that night, so his understudy, Charlie, took his place, and now Pfeifer and Alexis blame him for Charlie's death. The film ends with Reese getting hanged in a macabre performance of the play, followed by two police officers heading out to arrest Pfeifer and Alexis at their house, where they get killed by Charlie.

It's gonna take me a whole paragraph to unpack all the problems I had with this twist. First off, breaking into the school was originally Ryan's idea, with Reese merely going along with it, yet the ending indicates that Pfeifer and Alexis were behind it from the start. How was Pfeifer supposed to know Reese would be there? I guess you could say that Charlie told her, and she rushed over to watch him murder Reese and the gang, but that doesn't solve the other two problems I had. Charlie's death took place twenty years ago, which means that, if Pfeifer is his daughter, she's too old to be in high school. Furthermore, how did nobody notice that Alexis was Pfeifer's mother? She shows up in archival news footage during the second act, yet she's only ever referred to as Charlie's former girlfriend. Her having a daughter would've been mentioned by the other characters watching that footage, especially since that daughter goes to school with the protagonists, shares her mother's last name, is the leading lady in the play just like her mother had been years ago, and is in the building with them trying to escape. This was a twist that came out of nowhere, there just to shock the viewer in the last ten minutes. without any thought as to how it would play out in the story. Had there been at least a scene early on explaining that Pfeifer was Charlie and Alexis' daughter, instead of Ryan acting like a total asshole, I might have bought it. Hell, if they established early on that Pfeifer was bad news (hey, they could've used the "two perspectives on the same events" setup just for this purpose!), with the other characters kept in the dark as to her true intentions until the big reveal, that could've made for some great suspense as they learned what was going on. I just wrote a better film in thirty minutes than Cluff and Lofing did, and yet they were the ones that Jason Blum gave money to. Ugh.

Score: 1 out of 5

To be honest, it was the reviews talking about what a dreadful ending this film had that made me curious to find out how bad it really was. Well, my curiosity was sated, unfortunately. This film was a monumental waste of a number of good ideas, adding up to a film that had me leaving the theater shaking my head in disbelief at all the bad decisions and ineptitude the filmmakers displayed.

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