Between preparing for Comic Con, attending Comic Con, and then attempting to catch up with everything after Comic Con, there are several movies that I have missed over the last few weeks that I need to catch up on. As busy as I’ve been, there was one film that I simply had to make a point of seeing before it left theaters (because in all honesty, I don’t think it will be there for very long). Last month I wrote a review for the trailer of a found-footage horror film, THE GALLOWS that premiered on July 7th and was released in theaters on July 10th. I was ecstatic to see it, not because I thought it would be particularly good in any way, but because it made me nostalgic for the various campy horror anthology series that I grew up with from the 90s. But did the movie meet my expectations for a hokey nostalgia-fest, or was there a little bit more to it than I expected?
The story revolves around three teenagers, Reese, Cassidy, and Ryan, who learn the importance of school spirit one night when they break into the school auditorium. Reese is the star in the school’s upcoming revival of The Gallows, a play that went horribly awry when a prop malfunction caused the death of a student named Charlie Grimille in 1993. Reese clearly demonstrates that acting is not his forte, and admits that even though he can’t act his way out of a paper bag, he took the part as the lead in a desperate attempt to impress his costar Pfeifer. Ryan, fed up with his drama class requirement, convinces Reese that he is going to fail on stage, letting down everyone whose worked to make this play a reality, and that the best solution is to wreck the stage so that Reese doesn’t have to perform, but can still be there to comfort Pfeifer in her time of need. After breaking in however, it doesn’t take them long to realize that they’re not alone in the theater, and that something lurking in the dark is looking to close the curtain on them for good.
As I said in my review of the trailer, the story reminds me a great deal of my favorite GOOSEBUMPS book from my childhood, THE PHANTOM OF THE AUDITORIUM, as it is a story revolving around a group of kids breaking in to a haunted auditorium (I’d also be lying if I said I wasn’t silently singing lines from THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA while I sat in the theater; how could I not be thinking “Opera Ghost!” while watching this movie?). For me, the story of this movie is the thing I appreciate the most about it, but it is also a pretty glaring weakness for anyone looking for a serious or thought provoking horror film. I personally wanted to see something silly and hokey, something that could have been book-ended by the Cryptkeeper in an episode of TALES FROM THE CRYPT (as a side note, I could totally see the movie opening with the Cryptkeeper saying “Hello, kiddies! So nice to see that you decided to hang around for the show!” Yeah, it would totally be that bad.). Even though I got the story that I wanted, I can’t say that it’s a story that will appeal to everyone. Hardcore horror fans will probably roll their eyes at how cliché the story is, while non-horror fans probably won’t find anything with enough depth to change their minds about the genre.
Then there’s the found footage component of the movie. Though I’m personally not a big fan of this particular medium, fans of this subgenre will probably appreciate some of the camera work in this film. The camera mostly alternates between the camera in the control room in the theater, Ryan’s handheld camcorder, and Ryan’s cell phone (there is one more camera, but that’s a spoiler so let’s just focus on those for now). However, there’s nothing really unique about this particular found footage movie. While I appreciate some of the creative shot compositions that were produced with this format, along with the naturalistic performances from the cast (side note, they filmed a good portion of the film in a high school that was supposedly haunted, so it was probably pretty easy for them to pretend to be scared), but for me the film would have been enhanced if these shots were only occasional camera POV shots rather than the entire format of the film. The characters in the film, though well-acted, generally range from unlikable to forgettable. The only person you really sympathize with is Reese, since all of his actions in the film are motivated by his love for Pfeifer, so he’s easy to empathize with even when he’s clearly doing the wrong thing. Throughout the film, you also realize that due to events from the past, he has become the main target of Charlie’s wrath, both for being the new star of the show and for the actions of others close to Reese. Being blamed by an other-worldly force for a tragedy he had nothing to do with easily makes him the character we as the audience want to see make it out of the theater alive.
Normally, I don’t discuss specific plot holes in films in my reviews because they often contain spoilers, but this is one that needs to be discussed. Initially, the kids bring in tools to help them wreck the stage, one of which is a power drill. After they realize that they’ve been locked in, there is no attempt to use said tools to break the lock or remove the door from its hinges. I know that they’re scared and that it’s dark, but why did no one even attempt to use the tools to open the door when it became clear that there was no way of getting out? Another issue audiences will probably take with the film is the ending. Without giving anything away, there is a perfect place for the film to simply cut to black, but instead the film decides to tack on one final unnecessary scene before the credits rolled. I can see why they included it, but ultimately it felt superfluous, and that’s saying something for a film that only has a run-time of 80 minutes. The final scene tries to throw in a plot twist at the audience, making them look back on all the actions of one character in a completely new light. This seems clever at first, until you start doing the math in your head. Once you do that, you’ll begin rubbing your temples because the numbers don’t add up. Ultimately, the ending leaves you with more questions than answers, not in a cool analytical way, but rather in a frustrated “how does that make any sense?” kind of way.
The advertising for this film seemed to be trying to build up the ghost of Charlie into the next big horror icon akin to Michael or Jason, and in many ways he fits the bill. Charlie is a silent, undead killer with a mask with clear unfinished business, family issues, and a unique weapon of choice. All in all, he has a pretty great character design, backstory, and motive. That being said, I still have a hard time seeing the Hangman elevated to that status through the found-footage format. This is where we come to the ultimate question about the movie: is it scary? The answer is yes…sometimes. There are certain points in the movie where there is excellent build up and tension. Charlie himself certainly has a knack for stage direction, because he knows exactly when to appear and when to disappear to have the most effective scare. There are times where the found-footage motif really helps build the scene, keeping the audience at the edge of their seat, but outside of that, there’s very little this movie does to try to set it apart as a found-footage film. Unlike UNFRIENDED, there is nothing unique about this movie to set it apart from other found footage movies. In a market over-saturated by PARANORMAL ACTIVITY knock offs, found footage movies these days need to do something else unique to set their film apart. Sadly, there is nothing in THE GALLOWS that tries to be different from other found-footage films, and instead the medium is only used as a way to try to ground a very silly story and make it into something more serious than it actually is. In doing so, it actually prevents the film from being the full camp-fest it should have been; by trying to ground something so silly, they’ve taken away from the fun. As such, the only way this film could win over a crowd is if they’ve literally never seen a horror film before, and aren’t savvy to the troupes and clichés these types of horror stories are known for. At the end of the day, this movie is too silly to be taken seriously, but the found-footage component makes it too serious to be fun, ultimately satisfying no one. Well, no one but me.
I know I’ve spent a good portion of this review stating why you probably won’t like this movie; there are plot holes, characterization issues, and a shaky cam that are all enough to make your head spin. But honestly, I had a blast watching this film. I can’t say that you’ll be satisfied with this movie unless you’re looking for what I was looking for when I bought my ticket, but personally I got the movie I paid to see, and I found that exceedingly gratifying. Yes, the story is cliché, but it’s my kind of cliché, one that I could see a million times over and never tire of. It’s true that the movie could have been enhanced if they had dropped the found-footage aesthetic and gone for an overall goofier tone to match the story, but at the end of the day, I walked out of the theater with a smile on my face. It won’t ever be a horror classic, but I would certainly like to see it again when Halloween rolls around, or whenever I happen to be feeling nostalgic. If you’re sensibilities are anything like mine, you’ll probably have a blast with this film. But if this doesn’t seem like your cup of tea, at least check out the full version of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” cover by Thinking Up Anger ft. Malia J from the trailer.
What did you think of the movie? Are you glad that found-footage movies seem to be hanging around, or do you wish horror movies would shine the spotlight on something new for a change? Be sure to let us know @TheMovieChickk!
Be sure to also check out our quick review for The Popcorn Talk Network!
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