The Gallows is a 2015 found footage movie centering around a haunted high school play and the terrifying repercussions of putting it on again. I remember seeing a few trailers for this movie and being tempted to not touch it. There was something naturally horrific about a ghost that hangs people, but the movie seemed as though it relied solely on a few jump scares and camera tricks. But as my selection of viable films gets slimmer and slimmer, I decided to give this movie a chance to grab me by the throat.
The movie opens with spoooooky red titles, and then cuts to footage of a school play about some sort of colonial drama piece called "The Gallows" funnily enough. The parents start to whisper to each other, mumbling in a little bit of backstory like they're on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. The main character of the play is portrayed by a kid called Charlie, seemingly filling in for someone else at the last minute, who takes his spot on the titular gallows and a noose is slipped around his neck.
I am calling this movie out right now. I have done plenty of school plays in my time, and I can tell you right now that no teacher, or even a play director on any professional level in their right mind would ever actively have one of their actors (Especially a student) put their heads into a functioning noose, even if they were sitting down on a stable floor. This is the equivalent of pointing a loaded gun in someone's face for the sake of a student film. The footage we are watching is twenty years old, but even back in 1995, this shit would not fly.
Rant over. Things go predictably wrong when it turns out the gallows set actually has a functioning trap door, which gives way. WHYYYYY. Why would you put a trap door on the set at all, unless you were actually planning to hang someone? I understand that a ghost would be pretty damn angry about all of this, but I would personally be going after the set designer and idiotic director that thought any part of this play's third act would be a good idea.
So poor Charlie is accidentally hung onstage, his neck breaks and the pandemonium cuts to black. A helpful title scrawl tells us that everything we're watching from here on out is recovered form police evidence, so at least the footage isn't magically recovered from the middle of the woods like The Blair Witch Project. Also, I guess the cops in this universe have conclusive evidence that ghosts exist now. The meta implications of this are staggering.
Things skip ahead to modern day as some chuckling dick is videotaping what looks to be the same play as twenty years ago. Why a school would ever want to associate itself with such a gruesome and probably infamous incident in any way several decades after it occurred is beyond me. You are actively asking for some haunted shit to go down. Were budgetary restrictions at this place really so intense that they had to reuse the same set some kid died on?
The guy holding the camera for the first hunk of the film is Ryan, and I can barely get five minutes into this film before waiting for someone to punch him in the face. He is so skin-peelingly annoying that his very presence taints this film irreparably. The play's leads this time around are portrayed by Reese and Pfeifer. Pfeifer is clearly a lot better at this than Reese as he stumbles through his lines and misses cues, and I wonder how he ever managed to get the lead role in this play to begin with. Up in the wings, Ryan comments on all of this, and for the second time in as many days I wonder if I even need to be here if the movie is just going to heckle itself.
Ryan slouches around the school, still with his camera out and as he essentially irritates everyone around him, be they student or teacher alike, I have to wonder how this guy is even remotely popular. I have barely even seen his face and he's picking on drama students, giggling as he videotapes the sweating, uncomfortable members of the boys locker room and just generally making an ass of himself in every scene that he has a line in. He frequently makes jokes about the death of Charlie Grimmile, yet also calls the cast picture still on display in the halls “Morbid”. After another hackneyed rehearsal, Ryan actually starts interviewing the smattering of parents who are sitting in, including some mysterious woman who has attended every performance and claims to have been at the original production.
She and a few moms claim that weird stuff goes on around the theatre, but I am distracted by the fact that Ryan is taking all of this so seriously. The dude is an AV geek! Where do you get off picking on other nerds? He's actively journalling people's accounts like he's building a documentary or something. I am fairly certain that Reese is his only friend, and that is one hell of a strained relationship. This is theory is re-enforced when he finds out that Reese is in the play because he has a crush on Pfeifer and Ryan immediately tries to capitalize on his chance to be a whinging tool and go tell her. She mostly just brushes it off and on his way back, Ryan finally gets pranked by a few of the stage hands. As he attempts to exact horrid bully vengeance on this kid, he notices that there is a door at the far end of the theater that does not lock and somewhere in the fetid recesses of his simple, diseased mind, a plan starts to formulate.
I do not know how much I can convey that I hate this kid.
He comes back to Reese to talk him into it: That night, they sneak into the theater and trash the set, ruining the play and preventing it from going on. This boy clearly has no idea the lengths that your average drama program will go to get a performance on stage. Reese eventually agrees because Ryan claims that Pfeifer is SO into the play, she'll be devastated by the cancellation and Reese will be there with a shoulder to cry on. Wow, Reese seemed like a good guy up until now, but that is an OBSCENELY dickish move. He says yes, and Ryan's girlfriend Cassidy tags along because...we need a higher body count.
They sneak in that night, Ryan still bafflingly video taping all of this and we start to get into the meat of this sandwich. As they toil around the nighttime hallways and comment about how spooky this all is, Ryan heads off to continue his vindictive little game with this anonymous stage tech. Our first taste of the paranormal comes in the form of a locker door gently opening and shutting as Ryan dicks with this kid's locker. Breathtaking.
They head into the theater, because only the exterior doors in this place are ever locked, and they start to trash the set, which consists of breaking a few bottles and knocking a few things over. Most of the “Damage” that these kids are doing could probably be undone in five minutes with a broom and a competent stage hand, like Ryan unscrewing the steps to the gallows and tossing away the noose.
So far all this movie has is the occasional loud noise to freak out the audience, and it's getting old real fast. One such beat summons the troublesome trio upstairs where they run into Pfeifer. The hell is she doing here? She shoots the question back at them and Ryan lets them talk in private, leaving the still running camera behind.
Okay, I know it wouldn't be much of a movie if these kids were even remotely intelligent and avoided taping their breaking and entering and vandalism of school property, but seriously. At this point any desire to document their debauchery has passed, and they are just using their cameras for illumination, like when Ryan uses his phones night vision setting to look around. Did these people just forget to turn off the recording? Whatever. As the gang all tries to leave, it turns out that they're locked in. Of course they are. The kids try to find another way out, and Ryan notices that the gallows has been repaired with the noose tied back over the cross beams. This would be a nice, creepy moment if they did not call too much attention to it or immediately have a brief conversation concerning the noose. But god forbid anyone keep their mouths shut in this movie for two damn minutes.
While looking for a way out, the group stumbles into some sort of secret...passageway? That lead to some pretty damn extensive utility tunnels for a two storey high school. They walk down a spooooky dark hallway to find a spooooooky television that gives another sparky loud noise before playing a staticy news report in a ridiculously clumsy bit of exposition about the original accident back in 1995. I feel like all of these school plays and summer camp overseers and theme park owners would all save themselves a lot of time if they just watched the first Friday the 13th. It turns out from this awfully judgmental news cast, Charlie Grimmile was supposed to play the hangman, not the lead. The initial actor called in sick and Charlie filled in, which is what ended up killing him. Reese has a minor freak out at this and just all out sprints back upstairs in a matter of seconds to the cast photo in order to confirm his suspicions: The young man in the photo that was supposed to play the lead is Reese's father. He was the one Charlie was filling in for that night. But in all the confusion, I guess the camera changed hands to Cassidy and Ryan is nowhere to be found.
We cut back to Ryan on his cameraphone, who just sort of wanders around downstairs and gets one or two loud noises and a pass at another freaky moment when he spots what looks like another hanging body above him, then just runs back into the others. Tada! This scene was pointless. They hear some ominous footsteps above them and Cassidy is dragged back a little by something, marking the end of her contributing anything useful to the dialogue of this movie. Her lines will only consist of panicked screaming from here on out. Ryan responds by pulling some polysporin out of his fanny pack and-seriously, this jackass has a fanny pack? I don't even have a fanny pack! This dude is just some jibbering dork who is probably barely sufficient enough at football enough to avoid the daily beatings that he would most definitely receive were he even a toe lower on the social hierarchy. Anyways, he treats what looks suspiciously like rope burn on Cassidy's neck and they all start to get pissed off at each other, especially when Pfeifer notices the debris strewn around the set.
I should mention at this point that nobody has cell phone service, something they established at the beginning of the film. No real reason for this beyond "ghosts". So when Pfeifer points out a vent high above one of the exit doors, they actually see it as a viable escape route. Ryan clambers up a nearby ladder to get to it, all while freaked out and angry enough to keep shouting Charlie's name, daring him to do something. At this point I was actively shouting “DIE!” at the screen, and it looks as though my prayers are about to be answered. Some ghost force shoves Ryan off the ladder where he falls and breaks his leg. Reese and Pfeifer respond by...leaving him there to try and phone for help? On their phones that don't work? And by the time they get back, Cassidy has followed them far enough into the hall for the door to lock behind her, sealing Ryan in the theater alone.
Ryan stumbles around on his busted leg, before the percussive shrieks that precede any ghostly apparition these days finally summon the ghost of Charlie Grimmile.
He's just a dude in a hood! He looks like he's barely clearing six feet at best and just kind of stands there menacingly in his poofy shirt and knickers, holding out his noose. Also, I'm not sure if you noticed this, but this terrifying ghost's name is Charlie. Lame. Ryan makes one final show of shouting and babbling like a tool before being yanked by his neck up and out of sight.
As far as I'm concerned, the movie is over at this point. The evil has been defeated and we can all live happier lives.
The remaining three finally burst in, finding Ryan's busted up phone and pretty quickly writing him off as dead. I would too. Reese gets the idea to break a window with one of the trophies in the locker room, but gets sidetracked when he hears his cellphone ringing, which has somehow been locked in one of the lockers while his back was turned. Goddammit Charlie, there's being a vengeful spirit, then there's just being a dick. Reese finally bangs open the locker with his trophy and answers the phone call, but it's just more whispering ghost bullshit. It's enough to scare him into not even attempting his window breaking plan after that and run off. Focus, dude.
Meanwhile, back in the red-lit stairwell, we get probably the one good idea of the movie. Cassidy is all by herself in the shot because...well, she doesn't have a character and it's time to thin the herd a bit. There is a genuinely spooky scene as Charlie (Or a cardboard cutout of Charlie) slowly sliiiiiides into view behind her utterly silently, then disappears when Cass crawls towards the camera. She gets a rope of her own houdinied on to her neck and gets dragged away screaming.
Having utterly forgotten about Cassidy at this point along with the audience, Reese decides to yank a fire alarm in order to call for help, bathing the school in flashing red light. In the middle of all this, Charlie takes the opportunity to sneak up on them and go boo with that same screeching SHUUD noise. Reese and Pfiefer hightail it up into the rafters as the camera goes nuts and Charlie just chases them. I can only imagine watching this ordeal from a step or two back, with two kids sort of shimmying up a ladder while another kid in a poofy shirt and leather hood paws at them.
Around this point, it really started to hit me that this movie really is just a slightly higher budget version of that uninspired slasher movie some kids filmed back in the day around our own schools with our friends. If you weren't the one to make this movie, then you know someone who did, I'm sure. This movie is the movie you see playing at a convention at that one booth where the guys are trying to get you to buy a dvd of their indie film while the dude in the hangman costume just sort of stands around.
Reese gets a low battery warning on his phone while tiptoeing around the rafters and again, the question of why anybody is recording anything comes to light. I feel like you would save a lot of battery life if you weren't trying to get all of this for posterity.
One more jump scare gets us face to face with the dead bodies of Ryan and Cassidy, and I can take some quiet reassurance that that guy is really most sincerely dead, and the duo heads back downstairs somehow? Back into the theatre? I am all turned around and I don't think the movie cares at this point. Reese actually sees an open door and even runs outside before he hears Pfeifer choking somewhere behind him. At this point, all you would get from me is a quick “That sucks” inhalation through my teeth and a jaunty “Good luck with that” before I had cleared the parking lot, but of course Reese has to dive back into the school for his Bonnie Lass. As he tries to help her breathe, the stage lights turn on and bathe the gallows in light. And it...all...comes together somehow. For once, Reese actually takes his cue and seems to think that Charlie wants him to hang himself, in order to save Pfeifer. And he goes for it! He just goes ahead and strings himself up while Charlie flickers in and out of visibility. And Pfeifer's into it as well? She's starts doing her own lines and playing along, and Reese seems to smell a rat, but none of that stops him from say, moving off of the gallows or trying to save himself until the trap door gives way. Oh yeah, this gallows set is fully functional as well. The choices made by the design team at this school throughout the years are staggering.
Reese gets hung and Pfeifer takes a bow with Charlie's ghost, another scene that would have been spooky if they stuck with just his shadow under the lights and his image didn't keep flickering in and out. And someone in the audience applauds.
Let's talk about this twist.
Footage of police officers searching Pfeifer's house reveals that oh so mysterious girl sort of vaguely talking about the fact that Charlie had a girlfriend was GASP Charlie's girlfriend. And it turns out that Pfeifer was her daughter! And she was working with Charlie the whole time, because she wants to hang out with her ghost dad, I think. So that means that Pfeifer has been held back SEVERAL years into high school if she's 20 years old and her mom was teen pregnant with her, and also Reese's dad must have had him lickety split for this to work. And still, Charlie the Ghost seems chomping at the bit to execute the son of the guy who was, at best, tangentially related to his death. I would be hunting down the director or something. The cop searching the place finds a big shrine of crazy devoted to the Gallows play and Charlie, actually missing the fact that Pfeifer and Mom are actually in the same room as him as they sort of creepily smile at him until he sees his partner getting hanged in the next room and Charlie runs at him, mugging for the body cam as we cut to black.
Movie over, let's discuss.
Right away, I'm gonna say that the big twist of this movie comes right the hell out of nowhere. There is almost zero foreshadowing to suggest that Pfeifer is related to Charlie in any way. And considering how crazy she and mom seem to be in the last scene, it is amazing that she could pass for sane for as long as she did. This girl must be a much better actor than she let on.
This movie is a mix between an attempt an 80's slasher movie and an extrapolation of some old theatrical urban legend about a guy who died that one time. As far as scares go, there is no really disturbing subject matter or imagery this movie can throw at the audience with characters this unlikable, a plot this thin or a monster that looks that silly. This movie can only manage startling frights with the occasional loud noise and the anticipation of “Oh, when's the next thing gonna jump out at me?”. This movie has some pretty creepy set moments, and if it were to actually shut up and let the red emergency lighting and dark hallways do their thing, there might be something here. But no. Also, what the hell are the rules for this ghost? Nothing makes sense. Is he bound to the school? A part of the play? He shows up at the house and kills those two police officers easy enough. None of what Charlie does makes much sense.
I amazed that this film got a theatrical release at all. Give it a miss.