The Gallows: do not hang out with the understudy
By Bill Stamets
This originally ran on billstamets.com
written and directed by Chris Lofing & Travis Cluff
acted by Reese Mishler, Pfeifer Brown, Ryan Shoos, Cassidy Gifford
presented by New Line Cinema
distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures
“The Gallows” is good for a handful of shout-out-loud jolts, if your movie nerves are as unjaded as mine. Outperforming its New Line Cinema trailer, this high school horror film written and directed by Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff is most outlandish for its old-school scolding.
The day before the Beatrice High School drama club opens a play titled “The Gallows,” jerky jock Ryan (Ryan Shoos) talks his buddy Reese (Reese Mishler, who took classes at DePaul University and Second City) and cheerleader Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford) into vandalizing the colonial New England set. That way Reese, an awful actor, can escape embarrassing himself on stage.
And– Ryan schemes– then Reese can play the role of consoling hero in the arms of Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown). His distraught co-star has no idea Reese quit the varsity football team to get the male lead due to his crush on the diehard drama diva. “For crimes against the township of Bedford,” his character is scripted to hang by the neck until dead in “The Gallows.”
Lofing, a Beatrice High School alumni, and Cluff, who plays the drama teacher, begin their debut feature with a handheld camcorder tape. In 1993 a parent in the audience documents a staging of “The Gallows.” Reese’s character is hung for real. A local TV newscast at the time cites a “prop malfunction.” Unmentioned is that the tragedy occurred just before Halloween.
A Beatrice police department stamp of “video evidence” appears upfront and applies to everything we will see on screen, including the last minute or two that’s recorded on a police body-cam. Ryan’s camcorder and his classmate’s cell phones undergo all manner of natural and supernatural trauma. The increasingly abstract screen glitches are designed with something like beauty.
All supernatural activity is attributed to the student hung in 1993. An end credit reads: “In memory of Charles Grimille.” That old newscast replays by itself on screens in the school. Theater doors lock the three vandals inside, along with Pfeifer who unexpectedly turns up. Lights go out. Landlines die. The teens spend a long scary night running in the dark from Charlie. Neck abrasions come from nowhere, followed by fatal noosings. Charlie steps up his possessing for a final twist that is no more or less nonsensical than others in the genre.
Lofing and Cluff named their Fresno production company in Tremendum Pictures– possibly sampling mysterium tremendum, the Latin expression for God’s tremor-inspired mystery that a Lutheran theologian coined in 1917.
Although “The Gallows” invokes no Christian creed or satanic spirits, this better-than-average haunt show does abide the horror mandate to teach teens a lesson: Be responsible. Show up when you’re supposed to. Otherwise, you will hang and so will anyone nearby.
I am not kidding. That really is the moral. Irresponsible self-serving conduct is to blame for all the bad at Beatrice High.
What triggers Charlie’s revenge? Cast in the same role as his son, Reese’s father chickened out and “called in sick” back in 1993. His understudy was Charlie, so Charlie was hung that night. “Why don’t you just call in sick?” Ryan urges Reese. “I call in sick three times a week, minimum.” When Reese balks, Ryan mocks him for bringing up obligations: “A responsibility to these guys? Come on.” This is what leads up to them knocking apart the set.
Horror films traditionally punish characters for sex. There is only one kiss in this film and it’s on stage. Unlike the sub-genre where video cassettes, internet sites and cell phone cameras are channels of evil, here all things magnetic or digital only serves as narrative infrastructure.
“The Gallows” shows the downside of not showing up. The revenge of the understudy.