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"THE GALLOWS"
(2015) (Reese Mishler, Pfeifer Brown) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Horror: As a tribute, a high school drama department restages a play that went horribly wrong 20 years earlier, setting the stage for a new tragedy.
PLOT:
In 1993, a Nebraska high school mounted a production of a "Crucible"-like drama, titled "The Gallows." During the opening-night performance, the lead actor's character is sentenced to death by hanging. When it comes time to perform the stunt on stage, though, the boy is accidentally hung for real to the horror of all watching.

Twenty years later, the same high school is attempting to mount the same play as a tribute at the urging of the drama department's darling lead actress, Pfeifer Ross (PFEIFER BROWN). Cast as the lead male is jock-athlete Reese Houser (REESE MISHLER), who has been forced to take Theatre to stay eligible for sports. He has a lot of trouble learning and delivering his lines, but he is attracted to Pfeiffer and is sticking it out. But he gets bad advice from his snarky, mean-spirited best friend, Ryan (RYAN SHOOS), and his girlfriend, Cassidy (CASSIDY GIFFORD), who plot to break into the school after hours and trash the sets.

Once inside the school, though, Reese, Ryan, and Cassidy are surprised by Pfeifer, who saw Reese's car in the parking lot and decided to investigate. All four suddenly find themselves locked in the creepy, dark school with no electrical power and no phone service. Only the light from Ryan's video camera and Reese's cell phone camera light the way for them, as they slowly start to realize they are not alone in the school.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
The people who made the new horror-thriller "The Gallows" really don't know how close they came to making a good movie. I really loved the general premise of the film. In 1993, a Nebraska high school puts on a "Crucible"-like play called "The Gallows." At the last minute, a boy named Charlie who had been the understudy of the play's lead actor has to go on when that student falls ill. His character is sentenced to death by hanging. When the big scene comes, though, the stunt goes horribly wrong and Charlie is hung for real.

Twenty years later, the same school's Drama Department wants to restage the play as a tribute to Charlie. But the play's lead -- Reese (Reese Mishler), a jock forced to take Theatre to remain eligible for sports -- is terrible in the role. His snarky best friend, Ryan (Ryan Shoos), convinces Reese to join him and his girlfriend, Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford), and break into the school after-hours and trash the sets so the show won't go on. Once there, they are discovered by the show's lead actress, Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown). But before they can leave the school, all doors are locked, the power is cut, and there's no phone service. They are soon stalked by someone ... or something. The angry nerd who Ryan bullied? The creepy lady who sat in the back and watched all their rehearsals? Or is it the malevolent ghost of Charlie still haunting the stage?

That's a good set-up! I mean, it's not Hitchcock. But it's a solid concept. Unfortunately, co-directors and co-screenwriters Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing botch the execution like you wouldn't believe. It's disheartening how bad these two filmmakers are. I honor them for financing the film, working with mostly first-time actors, and getting it sold to a major studio. But there are really good filmmakers out there struggling to get such distribution, and I can see them turning homicidal as a result of this.

The film is one of those tired, played-out "found footage" movies. That means it was shot point-of-view, shaky-cam style. And once these kids get into their darkened, lights-out high school after hours, the eye strain on the audience's part is spectacular. It's literally like spending an hour with a couple of friends and one flashlight -- the light from the one kid's video camera -- skulking around in a pitch-black building. It's one thing to do a found footage flick in varying degrees of light and daylight. To do almost an entire film in an entirely dark space is just short of cruel.

But the film already lost me before the vandals got trapped at the school. How? Ooof. For about the first 20 minutes of this movie, the film belongs entirely to the Ryan character as he walks around the school and makes snarky, offensive, cruel, insensitive, and really unfunny comments about everyone who comes in the path of his video camera. He is tasked with filming "The Making of 'The Gallows'" as a school project. And he spends all of his time bagging on the kids making the play, referring to them as nerds; labeling the girls involved with the production as "ugly," while his camera leers over his cheerleader girlfriend (Cassidy Gifford); making fun of his best friend for having to forego sports and act in the play; and so forth. He makes numerous disrespectful comments about the dead Charlie. He makes fun of the Theatre teacher's clothes. It's just a jaw-droppingly awful way to start a movie.

It's basically 20 minutes of the co-directors getting the audience to hate this one character and root for him to die violently. Mission accomplished! Allied forces didn't want Hitler dead as much as audience members are going to want to see Ryan hang.

The third strike against "The Gallows?" The ending! I won't spoil in the Our Take portion of the review. But the last scenes of this film? At first, you might say to yourself, "Ah ... cool!" But about five, maybe 10 seconds later, you're likely going to mutter, "But ... but ... that makes NO sense!" In general terms, the writers ask you to believe that two of the characters in this film spent years setting up the events of this story. But there's no way they could have predicted the Reese character would 1) be forced to take Drama; 2) be cast as the lead; and 3) will eventually break in to the school after-hours to set the events of this in motion. Then, in the final scene, something happens that would unnecessarily expose them.

I am not spoiling too much here by letting you know that Cluff and Lofing were clearly inspired by "Carrie." But they really should have taken some cues from the original 1976 horror classic and just told the story in a much more straight-forward manner, fleshing out the parts of the story that needed more explanation. Instead, they went a very easy, cheapie, amateurish route here. I admire the effort and the inspiration. But unlike the malevolent spirit in the film, these two really botched the execution! I give it a 3.5 out of 10. (T. Durgin)




Reviewed July 6, 2015 / Posted July 10, 2015


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