Since filmmaking collaborators Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing teamed up back in 2011 on Kid HULK — a four-minute short about a young Bruce Banner who helps a girl deal with bullies (Lofing even got a bit of screen time as the titular hero) — it might be logical to assume that the pair might have been interested in attracting the attention of the Marvel-movie-universe brain trust in the hope of securing a coveted gig helming one of the highly anticipated superhero features on the horizon. (Mark Ruffalo, it might be worth tracking these guys down if you ever want the chance to take center stage in a solo Hulk project.)
Instead, their first feature-length film ventures down another popular genre trail — albeit one that might be on the verge of advancing past its expiration date: found-footage horror. Consider for a moment the long run enjoyed by this thoroughly modern (and quite inexpensive) riff on the fright game. The Blair Witch Project, back in 1999, took advantage of our escalating fascination with video-recording capabilities. Cameras were becoming lighter and cheaper, creating a whole generation of shooters eager to run and gun their way into quick fame and fortune. And horror provided a relatively low-fi narrative angle in which the majority of the action could take place out of the frame, leaving the heavy lifting to the imaginations of viewers.
It seemed as if we were moving past the idea of unstoppable faceless hulking menaces and/or corny thrill-killers slashing their ways through our collective nightmares. The final self-aware death throes of these genre hacks — think Wes Craven’s Scream franchise and the I Know What You Did Last Summer clones and copycats — were being chased out of the multiplexes briefly by the torture porn upstarts and the spooky supernatural voyeurism offered by found footage.
Who knew watching smaller, frantically captured images on a big screen could be so intriguing? Apparently Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions, that’s who. Blumhouse has seized upon this trend with a furious obsessiveness, spawning franchises like Paranormal Activity, The Purge, Insidious and Sinister, capable of exploiting the maximum efficiency of micro-budgeting and the heightened tension that could result from very little happening onscreen to anonymous people (few of these movies have even dared to cast a truly recognizable face, much to their credit and totally in keeping with the low-end production model).
And The Gallows has all the hallmarks of yet another Blumhouse shocker, although this time it would appear that there’s the sense that the found footage craze might be wearing thin, so Cluff and Lofing seek to inject a bit of the old-school tricks to scare up more twisting and shouting in the cheap seats.
After a horrific accident 20 years ago ruined a high school theater production in a small town, a new generation of students seeks to resurrect the play to honor the anniversary.
The new restaging of The Gallows features a high school jock named Reese (Reese Mishler), who has given up his status as a sporting golden boy to slum it with the theater crowd — in particular Pfeifer Ross (Pfeifer Brown), the little queen-diva of the stage who struck upon the idea for this anniversary tribute. Reese’s prickish best pal Ryan (Ryan Shoos) and his girl Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford) convince poor Reese that he’s doomed to fail on the big stage, so the trio sets out to secretly destroy the set the night before the play opens, only to discover that the show must go on, no matter what.
All manner of devices get employed to shed light on and push the found-footage narrative forward with precious little cohesion or coherency, but that will not stop audiences from buying into the jittery hysterics and the movie’s efforts to merge the occasional bumps and noises off camera with fleeting glimpses of a vengeful figure (The Hangman) straight out of the Freddy Krueger-Michael Myers-Jason Voorhees playbook.
What’s missing here, and what has largely been missing through most of the Blumhouse oeuvre, is a campy sense of humor. For all the success of Blumhouse franchise players, I find only the Insidious installments worth repeated viewings, and that is because those movies offer characters willing to laugh in the face of absurd horror, providing a brief respite from all the dire happenings.
The Gallows definitely could have used a self-aware joke or two to liven things up in an otherwise routine execution exercise. (Opens wide Friday) Grade: D+