The Gallows (2015)     ★★★½

I feel like a broken record, extolling the virtues of the found footage genre with every new and frequent release. Although the technique of found footage, usually where a character, or acknowledged party within the story does most or all of the filming, has its roots in the 1970’s, 1999’s Blair Witch Project is the revolutionary film that arguably made it its own genre, and of course 2007’s Paranormal Activity is the most recent example to breathe new life and reassure aspiring filmmakers everywhere the gimmick has still not been exhausted. The VOD market is littered with all kinds of found footage knock offs, but a few times each year Hollywood is certain enough about the quality to try them out in multiplexes. Their appeal is easy to quantify for both audiences and artists, featuring bare bones narratives, and a built-in acceptance of an amateur style that excuses character development and welcomes improvisation, an understandable stumbling block for critics. I find myself adapting a baseline for these films, and determining whether they pass or fail based on whatever new is brought to the table. And The Gallows, the new found footage film from the non-stop assembly line of low budget, director-centered horror, Blumhouse Productions, is the latest successful effort.

The set-up is familiar, a group of friends get trapped in a single location, and terror in the form of assorted jump scares escalating from fake to real takes over; those things will probably never change when it comes to this low a budget (under four million). And mileage will certainly vary whether the audience buys the situation the characters find themselves in, and their interactions with each other. The Gallows is named after a high school play, and takes place almost entirely in an auditorium, both onstage and backstage, where a group of teenagers are ostensibly terrorized by someone or something exacting revenge for an accident that happened twenty years ago that claimed the life of a student when the school attempted to put on a performance of the exact same play about to open tomorrow night.

The narrative twists and turns that get the film from point A to point B do not really stand up to close scrutiny, but even though plot holes abound there is enough plausible doubt that things don’t become laughable. And the fact that a high school at night is an incredibly scary place makes up for the screenplay’s shortcomings. There is a palpable sense of dread fostered by being trapped in such a wide open space, where somebody could be standing in the very same space, and can only be discovered by the narrow and restricted camera light, and the directors milk their pans across the empty theatre seats for maximum effect.

But where The Gallows distinguishes itself from its peers, without giving too much away, is the gradual realization that what directors Travis Cluff and Chris Loring are really up to is crafting their own origin story along the lines of Freddy or Jason or Michael Myers, and in the face of such precedent it’s rather pointless to argue over believability. You’re either along for the ride or you’re not, and your mind will undoubtedly be made up long before the film’s twist ending.

The Gallows is a taut, economic little shocker that maximizes its location and budget, refusing to settle for just gimmicks, and showcasing a talent that remains to be seen whether it can be developed in future films. The centerpiece here, and where the image on the film’s poster comes from is a clever display of technique that shows Cluff and Loring at least understand the medium they are working in, and it’s easy to see why The Gallows was picked up by producer Jason Blum. There’s a lot more here than in your average found footage thrill ride, and I hope the return on the investment warrants a sequel, because I’d love to see these guys expand their mythology.

The Verdict: Rave

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