My inner teenager had high hopes for New Line’s “The Gallows,” the latest found-footage horror flick apt to make a hefty payday for superfrugal producer Jason Blum (“Paranormal Activity”). You can’t not cheer for the writer-directors, Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff, who got discovered after putting a scary trailer for the movie on YouTube. They have some panache, and who doesn’t want to watch four gorgeous friends break into their high school one dark night with a video camera while being hunted by a killer? Sounds like “Carrie” meets “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” meets “The Blair Witch Project.” I’m there!
“The Gallows” turns out to be more of a muddle, with maybe a dozen pleasantly jolting moments, starting with the the opening, a handheld video of a high-school play shot by doting parents in the audience. The period play sucks worse than “The Crucible” and features a teen couple who say lines like, “I’m frightened — art thou?”
But the show livens right up when a totally implausible prop malfunction causes one kid to actually die on stage, on parental camera, in the play’s hangman scene.
This happens in 1993. Then, in 2013, the school revives the sucky play on the same stage. Football player Reese (played by Reese Mishler) is only in it because he’s crushing on his co-star, drama queen Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown). (They’re not unlike the jock and the diva from “Glee.”)
Their braying wiseacre classmate Ryan (Ryan Shoos) teases the theater nerds with dumb taunts as he shoves his shakycam in everyone’s face. (He’s not unlike a bully from “Glee,” only incredibly annoying.) After he talks the others into sneaking into the school, spooky in the darkness lit up only by Ryan’s camera, you can’t wait for him to die.
Cassidy Gifford, who plays Ryan’s girlfriend, Cassidy, is the real-life daughter of Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford, and also bears a striking resemblance to Emma Stone. She looks sensational even when she’s sobbing uncontrollably, fingering her rope-burn neck wound, pressing turquoise fingernails against her heaving bosom in a turquoise top exposing scarlet bra straps or abruptly getting yanked down the hallway.
Gifford could have scream-queen potential, but it’s hard to tell for sure given the production’s many flaws. Lofing and Cluff aren’t great writers: Their plot is a hoot, but not a particularly funny hoot.
As directors, they make their young cast improvise a lot of the dialogue — a skill that is beyond the reach of most of these actors. They say, “What the hell?” and “Dude!” more than they might if they had a proper script. The shocks and suspense sometimes work, but Lofing and Cluff have no idea how to get from one moment to the next, or to simulate cinema vérité or to imagine characters.
The bigger problem is the movie’s bad guy, the fuzzy, anonymous Hangman. He’s no match for Freddy Krueger. Also, there’s a nagging problem with his choice of murder weapon: Knife-waving psychos with problem skin in other horror films go out of their way to accost you; hangmen generally just stand there waiting for other guys to place your neck in harm’s way.
It’s cool when the camera moves through ominous passageways, but when the kids encounter menacing ropes that appear from nowhere, it’s not nearly as threatening as knives that appear from nowhere. Dude, just avoid the rope. What the hell?
“The Gallows” is not without thrills. What it lacks is the thrill of the chase.