One of the strengths of “The Gallows” is it knows how a cheery, bustling place during the daytime can become a creepy hall of horrors in the dead of night.
In the light of day, the high school in Beatrice, Nebraska, is a little run-down and apparently underpopulated — it looks like there are about 14 guys on the football team — but it’s bursting with energy and seems about the safest place on Earth.
At 1 a.m., though, with the doors all locked and the lights out and mysterious sounds echoing just around the corner, the locker room and the auditorium — and in particular the maze of corridors adjacent to and below that auditorium — suddenly take on an eerie, chilling quality. For the four kids navigating those corridors and for those of us watching this nasty little “found footage” horror film, “The Gallows” is one “Don’t go that way!” moment after another.
This is the kind of movie where you can anticipate the next big shock and it usually arrives right on cue, and yet it still gets you right in the gut. Even with some plot holes as gaping as the Grand Canyon — OK, as gaping as POT holes in Chicago after the spring thaw — its effectiveness cannot be denied. Even as someone who has seen the vast majority of modern horror films, I was surprised a couple of times, and I got a kick out of the audacity of two big twists near the end.
We open in 1993, with reasonably accurate video camera footage shot by the parents of Charlie, the actor playing the lead role in the Beatrice High School production of “The Gallows,” which looks to be a terrible and ponderous morality tale set in the days when a scoundrel would be hanged for stealing and for consorting with someone of a better class.
What, they didn’t want to do “Grease” again?
The play ends with Charlie with a noose around his neck — at which point a trapdoor opens, and let’s just say it’s a good thing this was a one-night-only show.
Cut to 2013, where an obligatory cackling bully jerko jock wisenheimer character named Ryan (Ryan Shoos) is harassing the theater geeks, flirting with his girlfriend Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford, and yes, she’s the daughter of Frank and Kathie Lee) and obsessing over why his best friend Reese (Reese Mishler, and look, all the characters have the same first names as the actors portraying them) has quit the football team to become the lead in … wait for it …
Yes, some 20 years after poor Charlie’s neck was snapped onstage at Beatrice High, the students and faculty and parents are all on board for a revival of this dreadful and cursed play. This is the first of about 30 stupid decisions made by key characters, but what horror movie DOESN’T feature the leads doing really dumb things?
Reese is a really bad actor, and in Ryan’s own obnoxious way, he’s trying to save his friend from embarrassment — so he hatches an incredibly ill-conceived plan to sneak into the school after hours and destroy the set, so the play will be canceled and Reese will be spared the humiliation. Also, by Ryan’s logic, Reese will somehow become a hero to Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown), the cute and energetic theater nerd who has the female lead in the play.
Reese, Ryan and Cassidy slip into the auditorium and start breaking things. Pfeifer shows up because she saw Reese’s car parked outside. (These kids aren’t criminal masterminds.) Soon all four are sinking deeper and deeper into the kind of scary movie that depends more on creaking sounds and sudden LOUD NOISES and quick bursts of violence than on blood and gore. At times it makes no sense for any camera and/or phone to be recording the madness as characters shriek and run and howl and cower and yell at one another, but “The Gallows” stays true to the “found footage” rule of never once stepping outside the conceit that all of this was recorded by participants in the story.
“The Gallows” started as a $15,000 project filmed by Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff in 2012. Blumhouse Productions (the “Paranormal Activity” and “Insidious” franchise, among others) picked it up, gave the guys some dough to spruce up the scares a bit, and here we are. In a quick 80 minutes, we get the back story, we meet the four core characters (all of the young actors do fine work), get the wits scared out of us about a half-dozen times and wind up with a VERY creepy ending that leaves the door wide open for more “Gallows” fun.