Written & Directed by Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing

Starring: Reese Mishler, Cassidy Gifford, Ryan Shoos, and Pfeifer Brown

Perhaps it was foolish of me to get excited for The Gallows, the latest release from Blumhouse Productions. I should’ve just prepared for another uninspired, run-of-the-mill horror film. But I couldn’t help it. The teaser trailer (not so much a trailer as a clip from the movie) sold me immediately. It opens on a stationary shot of a terrified teenage girl sitting on the ground, bathed in red light. We watch as a hooded figure slowly appears out of the darkness behind her. Cut to a close-up of her as she turns around, only to see….nothing. As she turns back around, the camera reveals a noose around her neck. We have just enough time to react before she is dragged off into the darkness. It’s an exceptionally well-executed sequence of pure terror that exhibits a craft reminiscent of vintage Carpenter. It’s a craft lacking in most modern mainstream horror releases. Sadly, this sequence is the only part of this poor excuse for a horror film where that craft is evident.

The Gallows opens with a brief prologue in 1993. Due to a prop mishap, high school student Charlie Grimille accidentally hangs to death during a performance of the school play, “The Gallows.” Twenty years later, the drama department at the same school is putting on a revival of the play. Cast in the lead role is football player Reese (Reese Mishler). He’s not a good actor, but he has a crush on “drama nerd” Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown – yes, all the characters are named after the actors playing them), who’s spearheading the whole project. He’s worried about ruining the play. Enter Reese’s obnoxious buddy, Ryan (Ryan Shoos), who has a plan: sneak into school the night before the play and dismantle the set so the play has no chance of being performed. Along for the ride is Ryan’s girlfriend, Cassidy (Cassidy – daughter of Kathie Lee – Gifford). Everything goes smoothly, until they discover Pfeifer hiding out in the back. But Pfeifer’s not the only uninvited guest. Someone (or something) has locked them in the gym and is terrorizing them. The students soon find themselves fighting for their lives against an unknown enemy. Could it be the spirit of Charlie Grimille?

When people complain about the stupidity of the found footage subgenre of horror, this is exactly what they’re referring to. It features all of the genre’s bad elements and very few of the good ones. It poorly mimics scare tactics utilized to far greater effect in films like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and [REC]. Given the overexposure of found footage today, you’d think first-time filmmakers Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing would try for something a little more original, instead of just sticking to the formula. One shot features a locker opening by itself above a blissfully unaware Ryan. It brings to mind those stationary shots of the bedroom in Paranormal Activity and, in the process, makes you realize you’re watching a pale imitation of something great.

The Gallows also features some of the shoddiest found footage cinematography to date. Half the time, the cameras are pointed directly at the floor. The filmmakers are occasionally able to wring some eerie atmosphere out of their location, but it does little to amplify the scares. Also, this film is especially egregious at ignoring the question of “Why is he/she still holding the camera?” In fact, given that our protagonists are committing a crime, one has to wonder why these characters are filming themselves at all. You’d think that, if you were doing something illegal, then the last thing you’d want is a visual record of it.

Speaking of the characters, we already know we’re in for rough ride when we’re introduced to the obnoxious Ryan. He’s the worst possible version of the class clown. The more he talks (and he talks A LOT), the more you loathe him. He’s the first one you want to die. Reese, on the other hand, is simply boring. There’s no life to this character. He just takes up space. There’s some humor in the fact that Resse the actor can’t act to save his life, much like Reese the character. Cassidy Gifford just runs around and screams a lot. The only bright spot here is Pfeifer Brown, who injects her character with a vulnerability that makes her relatable. It could just be that she’s surrounded by such a talentless group that she seems like Meryl Streep by comparison.

A note about the ending (don’t worry – no spoilers, for those of you still willing to sit through The Gallows after reading this); the story wraps up in what could be an interesting fashion. However, given what’s come before, it’s too little too late. What’s worse is the three-minute tag following it. The filmmakers must have been desperate to get a last-minute scare in before the credits. This pointless sequence brings the film down several more notches in quality. I’m amazed at how much more this sequence alone made me dislike the movie.

What else can I say about The Gallows? It’s an insult to horror fans everywhere. It should be out of theaters in about a month or so, and then we can forget it ever existed. Going back to that teaser scene, one of the scariest things I’ve seen in a while, it’s a shame this couldn’t have been better. If you want to watch something scary, you’d be better off going back to revisit Insidious Chapter 3 (or catching Blumhouse’s Creep, one of my favorite films from SXSW 2014, premiering on Netflix on July 14). Whatever you do, just stay far, far away from The Gallows.

Mark Wanner is an avid film fanatic based out of Austin, TX. When he’s not watching movies, he fills his time with pizza and breakfast tacos. Read Mark’s SXSW Film Festival Wrap Up here and here.