The claustrophobic, found-footage, horror chiller “The Gallows” (* OUT OF ****) keeps you hanging for almost 8o minutes with nothing that might either shock or scare you. The few ominous moments when the filmmakers actually frighten us are quickly forgotten. Most of the time, we see images of feet trampling floors, epileptic hand-held cameras prowling eerie hallways, and dramatic lapses when the characters deliberately avert their cameras from their devious endeavors. Sadly, “The Gallows” provides little that would alarm you enough to make you scream until you are afflicted with laryngitis. Clearly, rookie co-writer and directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing drewn most of their inspiration for their woebegone tale from classics such as “The Blair Witch Project” (1999), “Candy Man” (1992), and “Carrie” (2013). The film follows three mischievous pranksters as they break into their own high school after hours to destroy the set of theatrical play scheduled to open the next day. Idiotically, they bring along both video cameras and smart-phones to document their mayhem. First, Cluff and Lofing must have enjoyed “The Blair Witch Project” with its frantic handheld photography. Unfortunately, shooting the events from a first person perspective does little to heighten the horror, and found-footage films have long since exhausted their novelty. Second, you can endanger yourself in “The Gallows” by uttering a dead man’s name three or more times. Obviously, Cluff and Lofing appropriated this trope from “Candyman” and its sequels where invoking the bogyman’s name three times served to summon the supernatural fiend. Third, the pranks may remind you of the depraved teens in “Carrie” that sabotaged the beauty pageant. Cluff and Lofing go to painful lengths to maintain an eerie atmosphere, but they never pay-off this white-knuckled frenzy with palatable hysteria. Mind you, good horror movies boast intimidating villains. The bogyman in “The Gallows'” amounts to little more than an anonymous apparition without a menacing musical motif to enhance its malevolence. Comparably, Cluff and Lofing have tried to clone him in the mold of Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, or Candyman. Basically, this puzzling predator with a noose never rattles your nerves. Furthermore, “The Gallows” neglects to adequately reveal either the evildoer’s identity or its motive for behaving like an omniscient force of annihilation.
“The Gallows” unfolds in 1993 at Beatrice High School somewhere in Nebraska. A parent with a camcorder is taping a costume play that resembles Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” A woebegone character is sentenced to swing from a gallows. Suddenly, everything goes horribly wrong when an implausible prop malfunction occurs. The actor with a noose around his neck strangles to death before anybody can save him. The premise about a high school play gone horribly wrong is provocative, but it is wholly preposterous. Imagine high school administrators allowing their theater students to stage a play with a fully operational gallows? Such material itself would constitute dire poor taste. Incredibly, some twenty years after this tragedy, the same Nebraska high school decide to commemorate the tragedy with a new production of the same play. Had “The Gallows” been set in an off-campus little theater, the premise might have been credible. Anyway, the night before the play opens, a trio of students vandalizes the set. One of them is the actor scheduled to put his head in the noose. A high school football player, Reese (Reese Mishler), has been persecuted without mercy by his gridiron classmate, Ryan (Ryan Shoos), into participating in this notorious prank. Ryan has convinced Reese that Reese lacks the most basic acting skills. Furthermore, Ryan contends that Reese will succeed only in making a buffoon out of himself in front of the whole school. Essentially, Ryan has coerced a reluctant Reese into participating because if they smash up the sets, the play will be canceled, and Reese will not have to expose himself to ridicule. Ryan’s haughty cheerleader girlfriend, Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford), tags along for laughs. The trio wind up trapped inextricably in the school. Improbably enough, neither their smart-phones nor the school landlines function since cosmic evil permeates the premises. Doors which shouldn’t lock mysteriously lock, and an ancient analog television rebroadcasts the tragic news report from the past about the hanging. Nothing that these terrified teens do serves to deliver them from this labyrinth where a humorless, supernatural spirit decked out in a hangman’s mask stalks them with a noose. Complications ensue when another student, Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown), catches them in the act. She is the drama queen who campaigned or the play’s revival and doesn’t understand why Ryan and company want to sabotage the premiere.
Meantime, accompanying stupid teenagers through a maze of halls rapidly degenerates into monotony rather than melodrama. These cretins lack the common sense to wedge the doors open so those doors don’t slam shut behind them. Characterization remains sketchy, and nothing about these nitwits engenders charisma. No-one emerges as truly sympathetic, so we really don’t care when the hangman slips his rope around their throats. “The Gallows” relies on a largely unknown cast, but these amateurs acquit themselves admirably. As the obnoxious jock, Ryan Shoos is perfectly cast. You will hate this dastard from the moment you meet him. He deserves the noose that the villain snaps around his neck. Reese Mishler plays the only character with a shred of sympathy, and he seems to be channeling Tom Cruise. Reese is undoubtedly the most interesting and disturbed character. Frank and Kathie Lee’s daughter Cassidy Gifford plays a repellent cheerleader. The production values are strong, and the high school really seems like a spooky labyrinth. Cluff and Lofing had a promising idea, but they never generate adequate thrills, chills, and spills. Subsequently, this atmospheric horror epic induces yawns more than yelling. They don’t make their monstrous bogyman into a larger-than-life nemesis like Freddy and his ilk. The scenes after the play when the police show up to arrest the culprits seem awfully predictable, too. Far-fetched and formulaic, “The Gallows” recycles standard-issue horror clichés without either originality or spontaneity.