The good news about The Gallows, a low-budget, Fresno-shot horror film from the writing/directing team of Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing: Some of the scary parts are scary. The trailer, released online, was after all frightening enough to convince a major studio—Warner Bros. by way of the indie-horror specialists at Blumhouse Productions—to release it in the middle of the summer. Set largely in a high school after dark, the film makes good use of the darkened corridors and creepy basements its four leads wander in terror. The bad news? Apart from a relatively clever premise involving a haunted school play, everything else is business as usual. In fact, the film seems to have been built out of the remnants of other found-footage films. The film’s bad enough, in fact, that is suggests how empty the found-footage subgenre of horror has become.
Found-footage horror has roots that go back to the early ’80s, but its shot-heard-round-the world moment came in 1999 with the unexpected success of The Blair Witch Project, a terrifying low-budget film that used darkness, off-screen noise, and the seemingly unsimulated panic of three actors playing a college documentarians investigating a local legend. The clever 2007 film Cloverfield reconsidered the Godzilla movie as a handheld account of a monster attack. Paranormal Activity, released in 2009 after becoming a festival hit two years earlier, used found footage to create a fresh take on the haunted house story. It inspired many filmmakers to pick up the camera and point it somewhere dark. Too many. Some of the results, like The Last Exorcism, were effective if not inventive, but more typical is an awful film like Inner Demons, one in which all the nausea-inducing handheld footage adds up to nothing new. (And the less said of Apollo 18’s moon rock aliens, the better.)
The Gallows isn’t awful. But it is awfully familiar. It looks like the work of filmmakers who have studied previous found-footage horror films’ tricks with a stopwatch in hand: How long is long enough to send characters down a darkened corridor? What’s the most effective amount of time to have the camerawork turn so shaky that it becomes impossible to see what’s going on? Night vision’s still creepy? Well, let’s work that in, too!
Maybe this wouldn’t matter if anything about the film worked other than the occasional scary moment. But its lead characters range from the bland to the awful, with the worst of them—a malevolent Jughead (Ryan Shoos)—operating the camera and providing obnoxious commentary for most of the film. It’s one thing for a horror movie to make viewers wish it would get to the part where the characters would start dying. It’s another for one to make viewers wish the projector would break down.
Found-footage horror tends to be a bit mechanical by nature. Its bad guys have to be of the variety happy to stay off screen—mostly—as they suggest overwhelming power and malevolence while drawing out their torments to the length of a feature film. But the approach only works as long as the technique feels convincing. Otherwise, you get a film like The Gallows where going through the motions becomes the whole point. Earlier this year, Blumhouse released Unfriended, a film that took the form of footage captured from the laptop screen during one teen’s especially scary night at the computer. It was a much-needed update to an old app, a way to give fresh thought to the subtlety and tension that can make this odd subgenre so effective. It played like a way forward for found-footage horror, an approach starting to seem like it would be better off staying lost.