Though the device is always used as a means of ramping up tension, POV horror films cash in their claim on veracity the moment viewfinder guidelines or a “low battery” warning flashes on screen. Unless the intention is to put the audience in the position of identifying with an omniscient phantom cinematographer, that’s not how cameras work. None of that text is ever actually imprinted on the video itself, most consumer-level cameras can’t handle the darkness so crucial to horror films without constantly dipping out of focus, and there’s certainly none capable of capturing surround-sound mixes. So sweeping realism (or something close to it) off the table, what other motivations would a filmmaker have for using the by-now shopworn device?
If The Gallows, from writer-directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing, can be used as a case study, the answer is obfuscation, plain and simple. Obfuscation from a shaky premise, from a scenario that lacks basic credibility even in the realm of the supernatural, and even from simple pacing problems. Admittedly, The Gallows opens with a truly upsetting prologue. Flashing back to 1993, the static VHS image presents a believably amateur high school production of some Crucible-adjacent historic pageant, the exact sort of drama that could turn students off from the subject of American history for good. With chatter from proud parents punctuating the silence of flubbed lines, the sequence ends in pandemonium after a platform on stage opens up underneath a young be-noosed actor. Again, the idea that a working noose would actually be put around a child’s neck in a high school play is ludicrous, but the video’s warped, static-flecked feel of an outtake from one of those “Banned from Television” compilations they used to shill during episodes of Jerry Springer lift it above all such issues.
The film is strictly a high-tech spin on one of those Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
Flash forward to 2013. (The film evidently put in some purgatory time on the shelf waiting for distribution.) The same high school is preparing its revival of the play in honor of the 20th anniversary of that fatal accident. You read that right. And because this is a school where drama is apparently but mandatory, the hapless captain of the football team is set to play the central martyr role. His insufferably sardonic sidekick takes to documenting the train-wrecks that are the final rehearsals, and it’s those bad-faith videos that form the remainder of the film’s running time. Convincing his wooden pal that there’s no way he can go through the embarrassment of actually stepping onto the stage, they devise a plan to sneak into the theater the night before the curtain rises and trash the set. From there, it’s strictly a high-tech spin on one of those Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
For all the shakycam realism The Gallows exhibits, its protagonists seem to exist in a clichéd high school oligarchy (e.g. jocks on top, theater geeks on bottom) not even the most reactionary “It Gets Better” reenactment would indulge. That might not have been such a huge problem if the movie’s presumably purposefully shapeless editing didn’t force you to spend almost half the film’s running time living out their simultaneously tedious and irritating subjectivity before getting to the good stuff. By the time the movie starts borrowing the right tricks from [REC] and its ilk (and to reasonably decent effect with at least two or three well-executed shocks from misdirection within the frame), no amount of sharp, unmotivated panning can dance around the hollowness at its core. A shame, really, since this former techie could’ve unabashedly ridden for a horror flick about the dangers of pissing off the theater geeks of the world.