The fictitious high school play The Gallows isn’t very good, judging from what we see of it during the real horror movie The Gallows. The dialogue is thin, bordering on cryptic; the characters’ motivations are unclear; and most important—at least for the school’s liability insurer—it climaxes with an execution on a fully functioning gallows, which has already resulted in one student’s accidental death back in 1993. Remounting the play 20 years later is morbid at best and negligent at worst, but then again, bad decisions are the foundation upon which the horror genre was built. After all, if the Lutz family hadn’t purchased a suspiciously inexpensive Dutch Colonial home on Long Island, we wouldn’t have The Amityville Horror.
The Gallows opens with a videocam recording of the ill-fated 90s production, the two parents behind the camera engaging in ridiculously expository banter. Charlie, the actor playing the lead role, is killing it, but the parents barely have time to praise the realistic gallows before a noose is tightened around his neck, a trapdoor gives way beneath his feet, and his life ends with a loud crack.
Fast-forward to 2013. From the balcony of the same theater, the obnoxious Ryan (Ryan Shoos) records his friend Reese (Reese Mishler—yes, the main characters were all named after the actors to help them get into it) as he rehearses the same role that claimed Charlie’s life. But unlike Charlie, Reese sucks. He’s taken the role only because he has a crush on the female lead, Pfeifer (Brown), which subjects him to lots of teasing from Ryan, a jock and an enthusiastic bully of theater geeks. Ryan talks Reese into returning to the school that night, entering through an unlocked side door, and destroying the set so the show can’t go on. Ryan’s girlfriend, Cassidy (Gifford, the spawn of Frank and Kathie Lee), tags along. Their plan quickly unravels: Pfeifer shows up, all wide-eyed confusion, and they discover that the unlocked door is now locked tight. Continuing the tradition of poor decision making, the teens have embarked on their mission with nary a flashlight among them, so as they search for an exit, taunted by something supernatural, their only illumination is the light on Ryan’s video camera—hence their documentation of the terror.
The film plays out as a sort of drama-nerd revenge fantasy in which the cool kids become prey. A first cut was completed in 2012 by Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff, two industry outsiders from far-flung Fresno, for just $15,000, then made “theater-ready” once it got some interest and some more money. Cluff has said that they also added “more scares,” so the money must have been well spent. The Gallows is a perfectly fun entry in Blumhouse Productions’ ever-growing roster of low-budget, mock-verite chillers (Insidious, Paranormal Activity). But high school drama teachers across the nation may have a tough time casting those fall productions of The Crucible and You Can’t Take It With You. v