Although The Blair Witch Project put the “found footage” subgenre on the map in 1999, it wasn’t the first movie to use supposedly actual film or video recordings that have been discovered and combined to tell a fictional story. However, since then, over 100 movies of all genres (although most of them are horror) have been released. The ratio changed from a handful of them between 1980 and 1999 to nearly seven per year between 1999 and 2015. Their abundance has elicited cries among the horror community of, “Not another found footage film!”
Nevertheless, we now have another to add to the list, The Gallows. Why another found footage film? Is there anything fresh or new about it or a particular reason to go see it? The writers/directors of the movie, Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing, told me that it’s unique because of the story and the characters. After watching it, I understand why they’re spinning it/marketing it that way, but I’m not sure I entirely agree with them about it. It’s hard to establish a lengthy narrative or represent character development when everything takes place with a single camera that someone carries with him/her.
That may be one reason found footage films have relatively short running times; The Gallows is only 81 minutes from beginning to end. What I liked most about it is that it exhibits most of the raw energy from a movie like The Blair Witch Project instead of that from many that came after. It’s obviously filmed on a low budget; there’s not a lot of money behind the scenes masquerading as a low budget. What that means is that it’s authentic. You believe the footage comes from actual events and is not staged for “pretend.” Further, it also means it’s scarier than most found footage horror films.
The Gallows has some terrifying moments, perhaps more so because the environment is familiar, or at least imaginable, to most of us: a dark and deserted high school after hours. It doesn’t take place in space or in a Spanish apartment building. Contributing to the fear factor, the story is as simple as can be: in 1993, a student was killed in an accident during a play called, “The Gallows.” On the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, the school prepares another production, but when a group of troublemakers breaks in to stop it, they’re haunted by his ghost.
Inside the high school’s seemingly endless series of corridors and hidden rooms, there are some good jump scares. But a couple times, I thought if the filmmakers had chosen a different shot, the movie could have gone above and beyond. For example, at one point, a character is suddenly lifted into the air by his feet into the rafters backstage. The point of view is that the camera is dropped before it happens and we see him lifted. I thought it would have been more interesting for him to hold the camera as he’s lifted, then drop it to reveal him hanging by his feet. We would have felt what he felt as it happened.
This raises the question that all found footage movies eventually raise: would someone really be carrying a camera during all the action? And there always seem to be shots that don’t come from a camera being carried. That is the suspension of disbelief you must make to thoroughly enjoy a found footage movie. The Gallows is better than most about supplying those moments of disbelief. You just have to relax and flow with it, assuming there will be some discrepancies in logic. When you do that, it’s easier to be scared.
The scariest part does not occur in the high school, though. It’s in the epilogue that occurs in the aftermath. The brief conclusion is super creepy and abruptly frightening. However you feel about found footage films or the characters and story of The Gallows, it makes the experience worth it all by itself. It also adds emotional heft to the story, satisfactorily tying up loose ends while leaving us wanting more. In that respect, I guess I’m recommending the movie. However, while it’s reminiscent of the best of the subgenre, I can’t quite say it’s among the best.