If you just gaze at the new found-footage horror movie The Gallows (2015) on a surface level, you’ll encounter several unlikable, superficial teen characters, and a repeat of many found footage tropes, including the night-vision scene, and the visual distortion that typically accompanies the appearance of a supernatural specter.
If you look beyond that surface, however, you may find that The Gallows is an enjoyable and straight-up presentation of a different set of tropes; those belonging to 1980s slasher or “dead teenager” films.
From start to finish, this horror film from directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing is actually a straight-up tribute to what horror was, in the years circa 1978 – 1983. That was the reign of Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980) My Bloody Valentine (1981) and other classics of the sub-genre.
With a wink and a nod, The Gallows resurrects once-popular slasher characters, situation, and settings, and this fact alone differentiates it from many other modern examples of the found footage trend.
Now, The Gallows received a slew of bad reviews, but was a hit at the box office (grossing over 38 million against a budget of 100,000 dollars), yet I suspect those negative reviews come largely from writers who don’t love horror, or don’t have any real understanding of its many formats.
In short, if you like the slasher film paradigm, and enjoy seeing its (welcome) old tropes revived for the 21st century, it’s a good bet you’ll like and enjoy The Gallows.
Twenty years later, in October of 2013, a young student at Beatrice (Pfeiffer Brown) has spearheaded a revival of "The Gallows" for her drama class. She plays the lead role, and cast as her romantic opposite is football jock, Reese (Reese Mishler).
Reese’s friends, especially the sarcastic Ryan (Ryan Shoos) mock him endlessly about the drama club, the play, and his inability to remember his lines. On the night before the big show, Ryan suggests to Reese that if the show goes on, he’ll never live it down. He suggests that they sneak into the school auditorium by night and destroy the play’s setting so that "The Gallows" will be canceled. Reese agrees, and cheerleader Cassidy (Cassidy Spiker) signs on to join the fun.
That night, the trio sneaks into the school through an unlocked door and begins to destroy the sets for the play. When Pfieffer shows up, however, Reese is ashamed of his behavior, and lies to her about it. She discovers the truth about his intentions, but they all have more important problems to address when they find the exit door locked.
In fact, every door leading out of the school is locked, landlines are dead, and cell-phones have no service. Worse, a strange specter -- an executioner or hangman with a noose -- is hunting the foursome.
Think Halloween night in John Carpenter's Halloween, or the summer camp in Friday the 13th. In the case of The Gallows, the organizing principle is the stage play, performed at Beatrice High School, The Gallows, which involves a love affair that survives death, a hanging, and a masked executioner.
Virtually every good slasher film commences with another convention: the deadly preamble or the tragedy/crime in the past.
In Friday the 13th, for instance, someone murders two camp counselors at Camp Crystal Lake in 1958. In Halloween, little Michael Myers kills his older sister, Judith, on Halloween night in 1963. In both cases, the action then jumps forward to an anniversary of sorts (in 1980, and 1978, respectively).
The Gallows conforms to this trope too. The film opens with home video footage of the school play in 1993, when something goes terribly wrong, and Charlie dies horribly in that noose, his neck snapped. The remainder of the film takes place in the lead-up to the 20th anniversary of that deadly preamble, or tragedy in the past. We get the idea that the ‘evil’ past has been resurrected in the present, for a whole new generation.
The character in The Gallows are all archetypes from the slasher paradigm as well. They are from our old 1980s friend, the teenage “victim pool.” Our obnoxious camera-man, Ryan, is the practical joker of old, an asshole who enjoys mocking and teasing others, until he meets his grim demise. The Gallows devotes much time and energy to Ryan’s sarcastic, mean-spirited musings about the drama club, and his nasty behavior towards a stage manager. Ryan engages in more than one practical joke (involving the stage manager’s wardrobe and locker, and another one involving a football).
Secondly, we encounter the cheerleader, Cassidy in this case. She’s the shallow, mean-spirited screamer who, like the practical joker, is certain to die. Like the practical joker, the audience doesn’t invest much in the cheerleader character because we know that this “popular” (but not terribly bright…) character is doomed.
Then, we get our villain, the spectral executioner or hangman. In slasher movies, the killer is always someone dressed differently from the victim pool, a fact which marks him as an “other,” someone outside mainstream society.
Often, the killers also associated with masks (Jason and his hockey mask; the Shape and the Shatner mask) and particular weapons (Freddy’s glove, Jason’s machete, etc.). The killer in The Gallows wears both a hood/mask, and is identifiable by the weapon he usually carries when he becomes visible: a rope and noose. The mportance of the mask? It cloaks identity.
The Gallows provides a brief red herring too, in the person of a janitor who may be working late at the school, and offers a mysterious Cassandra-type character, a woman at the Beatrice High dress rehearsal who also claims to have been present during the 1993 tragedy. She may know what's going on, and who, in particular, is doomed.
And what about the final girl?
The Gallows presents Pfeiffer, the drama queen as the final girl -- a smarter, more insightful brand of youngster -- but plays some Happy Birthday to Me (1980)-styled tricks regarding her history and background.
Other elements from the Slasher Paradigm are also imported intact to this found footage film. For example, almost every slasher film of the 1980s included a scene I call the “Tour of the Dead,” wherein living characters, during the final chase, encounter the “staged” corpses of their dead friends. This happens in The Gallows, up in the stage rafters, before the denouement.
And finally, of course, there is the “sting in the tail/tale,” the final shock that ends a slasher movie on a scary note. The Gallows provides one of those too, this one involving investigating policemen and a creepy and legitimately surprising revelation about the executioner’s…family.
I admire The Gallows dedicated attempt to revive the Slasher Paradigm, and adapt it to the structure and formula of found footage. One good scene here involves a character recording his own death, and the other characters “replaying” it on his device. This satisfies one of my core concerns of found footage films: nobody ever seems to review all the captured footage…footage which would reveal the presence of something sinister and supernatural. That’s not the case, here.
I also got a kick out of the opening scene, wherein parents record the ill-fated 1993 play, blissfully unaware that all their commentary (not always flattering...) is being taped for posterity.
What’s the downside of adopting the Slasher Paradigm?
Well, characters in these films are literally off-the-shelf. They are broad types, like “practical joker,” “cheerleader,” “jock,” “nerd” and so on. There isn't much more depth than that. Most films of the slasher variety don’t take characterization much past that generic point, and neither, really, does The Gallows. So while the movie nicely apes slasher format, one can’t claim that it features deep or interesting characters. In fact, Ryan is despicable, and you may be thirsting for his demise. This is not an unfamiliar feeling for fans of the Friday the 13th mythos.
On the other hand, the final series of revelations tie everything together nicely (and shockingly), and one comes to further understand how the “crime” or “tragedy in the past” has destroyed people in the present. The transgression that destroyed Charlie lives on, and has taken over the next generation in the film.
Wes Craven, the late, great horror director often discussed the Freudian aspects of horror films and he could have been talking about this film. He discussed the way that things which are repressed or buried turn up in the present as pathological symptoms. The Gallows follows that pattern. Family dysfunction, it seems, passes from one generation to the next.
The real question about The Gallows, I suppose, is this: is it a shallow horror movie with characters you don’t care about, or a revival of slasher tropes that intentionally exploits the fact that the characters (particularly Ryan) are unlikable?