One advantage of selling horror movies to teenagers is that they’re less likely to already know all the genre tropes. That’s about the only thing working for “The Gallows,” a routine found-footage chiller of interest mostly to those who weren’t yet old enough to catch “Paranormal Activity” in its theatrical release a mere six years ago. Fortunately, the microbudget feature helming debut of Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff has a relatively low bar to clear at the B.O., even if grosses fall short of the summer’s other spookfests, “Poltergeist” and “Insidious: Chapter 3.”
The filmmakers quickly establish their mythology in an effective enough urban-legend-caught-on-videotape opening sequence set in 1993, in which Nebraska high-school thespian Charlie Grimille literally dies onstage in a freak accident during a school play. Twenty years later, the school has rather inexplicably scheduled a tribute performance of the same play, titled “The Gallows,” despite concerns from some parents that Charlie’s ghost haunts the auditorium where he perished.
Such paranormal activity is the last thing on the mind of football star Reese (Reese Mishler), moonlighting as the revival’s lead actor in order to nurse a schoolboy crush on leading lady Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown). The would-be romance is an endless source of amusement for Reese’s obnoxious buddy Ryan (Ryan Shoos), whose convenient habit of filming everything he sees provides our window onto the action. The kid has a knack for being in the right place at the right time, and framing key conversations like a pro, even when he leaves his camera unattended on the ground.
Ryan is also responsible for the film’s requisite terrible idea when he convinces Reese they should break into the school at night and destroy the play’s set, saving the less-than-confident Reese from embarrassing himself onstage in front of Pfeifer on opening night. Ryan’s peppy cheerleader g.f. Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford, daughter of Frank and Kathie Lee) insists on tagging along, but the attempted vandalism hits a snag when Pfeifer unexpectedly shows up, too.
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That’s the least of the gang’s problems when they discover they’re locked inside the building, their phones don’t work, and a crucial part of the set they thought was destroyed — the steps to the titular gallows and a noose exactly like the one that snapped Charlie’s neck — mysteriously reassembles. After deciding to explore the bowels of the school in search of a way out, things go from bad to worse faster than anyone can say “phantom of the opera.”
Getting locked inside an empty school at night is a solidly bone-chilling premise for teens, and a certain subset of that audience won’t mind that nearly every one of Lofing and Cluff’s ostensibly scary setpieces can be seen coming a mile away (mostly because we’ve already seen them in other movies). Loud noises, narrow corridors, locker doors opening and closing on their own, a television set that turns on by itself to provide expositional news footage — “The Gallows” isn’t without a certain amount of atmosphere, it simply feels borrowed wholesale.
That would matter less with a better script, but the four main characters are paper-thin even by genre norms. The painfully protracted first act depends on the assumed improbability that an athlete would date a drama geek (hasn’t anyone in this town seen “Glee”?), and the climactic twist raises more questions than it answers; without spoiling, suffice it to say the teens are up against a very patient and very vengeful spirit with a soft spot for needlessly elaborate schemes.
“The Gallows” is the sort of forgettable programmer that could be due for rediscovery down the line in the event that one of its fresh-faced cast members blossoms into a genuine movie star. Judging by the admittedly slim basis of what’s onscreen, the best bet would be Gifford, who stands out as both the most charismatic and comfortable on camera among the central quartet.
Cinematographer Edd Lukas has the thankless job of making everything the audience sees look like it was captured by narcissistic and/or terrified teens, and if some of those moments are a little too polished — especially the striking way in which the climax unfolds in a single shot from behind the action (at least until a second camera is introduced) — he can be forgiven for not playing down to the material.