The Gallows

THE GALLOWS. Starring: Reese Mishler, Pfeifer Brown, Ryan Shoos, and Cassidy Gifford. Directed by Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing. Rated M (Supernatural themes and violence). 81 min.

This is an American horror film about a group of students in a small town in the USA who come together to honour the anniversary of a tragic accident that happened to another student during a school play, held 20 years before.

The film was originally named "Stage Fright", but was retitled to emphasise more obviously its horror components. It has been produced by the same company that is responsible for the "Insidious" series. The latest of these films is currently on release in Australia, and is screening as "Insidious: Chapter 3".

Back in 1993, a student actor in a play was accidentally hanged to death. The failed play is being resurrected, but a group of students break into the school on the night before it is being staged to wreck the set. Unwittingly, they become revenge victims for what went wrong 20 years earlier. The title of the film reflects the preferred method of extermination of the intruders.

This is a classical horror film that attempts to scare viewers with unexpected, repetitive appearances of supernatural forces that mostly have death-by-hanging in mind. Four teenagers, Reese Houser (Reese Mishler), Pfeifer Ross (Pfeifer Brown), Ryan Shoos (Ryan Shoos) and Cassidy Spilker (Cassidy Gifford), attempt to survive their attacks. Three of them don't, and one of them does.

The essential focus of the two directors of the film (Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing) is not on lots of blood spilt, gory scenarios, and especially gruesome killings, but on making sure that fear is kept alive by creating scenarios that anticipate dread and terror, emotions that viewers are intended to share. The device that the directors of the movie use is a video camera that appears to be recording everything that happens from the start of the movie until its finish. That means we are exposed to lots of grainy, poorly lit shots of locked or closing doors, frightened teenagers running along dark alleyways, and hanging rope.

Scenes in it do shock, initially at least. In the movie both sounds and sights are well integrated; terror is reinforced with the help of some impressive night-photography; and tension is created as the supernatural forces that are around look for revenge. All along, viewers don't know who is operating the video camera. The device works until its novelty begins to wear off. The editing and timing of the scare-scenarios are intended to be effective, but the shock tactics lose their impact through constant repetition.

By the end of the movie, the viewer begins to suspect that ultimate survival of at least one of the students will be inevitable, and there are only a limited number of pictures of hanging rope that seem possible. This is adult-fare for those who enjoy horror movies; it could be nightmare material for the truly young at heart; but it is standard material for adults looking to be scared for a full hour and a half.

The film as a whole has an amateurish look about it, and deliberately so. Nearly all of the film exposes the viewer to shaky, jerky camerawork and poor lighting. But if one enjoys feeling fear and dread for a while, the film creates some good "on-the-edge-of-the-seat" moments, especially in its later scenes.

In its attempts to shock, the film plays with emotions rather than thoughts, ideas or interesting concepts. It is not quality viewing within the horror genre, as was the recent "It Follows" (2014), which scared at the same time as it stimulated the mind, but it entertains. The best parts of the movie are when there is a final coming together of spirit influence, and who might be on the other side of that video camera.

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Roadshow Films

Released July 23rd., 2015