Director: Chris Lofing, Travis Cluff
Writer: Chris Lofing, Travis Cluff
Producer: Jason Blum, Guymon Casady, Dean Schnider, Benjamin Forkner, Chris Lofing, Travis Cluff
Stars: Ema Horvath, Chris Milligan, Brittany Falardeau, Dennis Hurley, Erika Miranda, Anthony Jensen
An aspiring young actress seemingly summons a supernatural killer after reading a passage from a cursed play.
¡°The Gallows Act II¡± is a product of its time. That time isn¡¯t 2019, the year it finally released. The movie more strongly links to 2017, when it first screened for a focus group, or maybe 2016, when preproduction had already fallen behind trends it had no hope of catching up to.
¡°The Gallows¡± (review here) didn¡¯t exactly set horror fandom on fire in 2015. Garnering only a 14% aggregate rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it¡¯s safe to say I was in the minority of critics who appreciated the film for what it was, a tidy teen thriller made for Friday date night at the multiplex, and awarded it one of its few favorable review scores. A 22% RT audience score and 4.2 IMDb user rating offer evidence that viewer enthusiasm peaked no higher than turning both palms toward the ceiling and muttering, ¡°eh, I¡¯ve seen worse.¡±
Yet the movie reportedly grossed nearly 43 million international dollars on an estimated $100,000 budget. The disparity between those numbers demanded a sequel, even if audiences didn¡¯t.
Unfortunately for Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff, who wrote and directed both movies, they got a greenlight for their follow-up back when Blumhouse was still bankrolling any ol¡¯ thing that seemed remotely relevant for high school crowds. BH since pivoted to producing less chum for DTV streams in favor of spotlighting evergreen brands like ¡°Halloween¡± and ¡°The Purge¡± as well as prestige projects from people like Jordan Peele. This is educated conjecture, but the more aggressively Blumhouse fights to take back its title as the leader in horror entertainment, the less we¡¯ll continue seeing slashers specifically built to be slumber party rentals.
As a presumed result of Blumhouse¡¯s ongoing reorientation, ¡°The Gallows Act II¡± landed in limbo. There, it twiddled its thumbs for several years while waiting for a distributor to figure out what to do with a finished film that no longer fit an agenda. Remember, Jason Blum has a first look exclusivity deal with Universal. Whenever you see a Blumhouse logo that isn¡¯t hitched to a spinning globe too, as is the case with ¡°The Gallows Act II,¡± you know at least one studio said, ¡°yeah, no.¡±
An ingenious thing Lofing and Cluff do with ¡°Act II¡± is they find a way to refashion the franchise¡¯s fiction. They connect Charlie Grimille, the character whose curse created the haunted play, to the notorious ¡®Charlie Charlie Challenge.¡¯ It¡¯s a clever method of making their movie¡¯s mythology more mainstream while rooting it to an urban legend that frees the film to refresh with a viral video aspect.
But as a side effect of sitting on the shelf for so long, that part of the premise arrives well past its Sell By date. The Charlie Charlie Challenge was momentarily popular in 2015. Now it¡¯s a stale hashtag that feels like it dates the movie by a decade, even though it¡¯s only been four years.
After a prologue scene fake-out, ¡°The Gallows Act II¡± dispenses with the ¡°found footage¡± frame that the first film had. YouTube videos do play a part. Otherwise, ¡°Act II¡± opts to shoot traditionally. That tradition includes following formula while incorporating more than its fair share of scary movie tropes.
Auna (not Ana) wants to be an actress so badly, she moves in with her scowling sister Lisa simply so she can enroll in Fellbrook High School¡¯s prestigious drama program. Actual actress Ema Horvath¡¯s perky personality might be too much for some viewers to bear. But Auna is onscreen often. Horvath¡¯s insistent effervescence repeatedly rallies sleepy attention spans with ¡°c¡¯mon guys!¡± cheerleading that pulls the movie through its unenergetic portions. She¡¯s one of the more magnetic performers to be plugged into this routine role.
While Horvath has a young Hilary Swank thing going on, Chris Milligan carries enough of a Landon Liboiron vibe that I¡¯d swear they were the same actor if I didn¡¯t know better. Milligan plays Auna¡¯s new crush Cade. Milligan looks like he¡¯d be better cast as a bullying jock or douchey frat bro. He definitely appears too old to be climbing into tree houses with Auna.
But ¡°The Gallows Act II¡± spends a lot more time on the duo¡¯s romantic relationship than most movies in this category do. The extra effort practically bulldozes you into accepting them as a cute couple whether you can believe it or not. Assuming you do buy in, the build behind their backstory gives Auna and Cade clout that more cursory characterizations don¡¯t have.
Long story short, because this summary shouldn¡¯t require more detailing than the screenplay received, Auna ends up obsessed with ¡®The Gallows.¡¯ This is because performing passages from the haunted play gets her in good with her theater teacher. It also results in paranormal activity plaguing her bedroom when she reads aloud online, and Auna couldn¡¯t be happier about the big boost in subscribers those videos bring.
She¡¯s less happy that the videos bring The Hangman, a hooded haunter summoned by simply saying Charlie Grimille¡¯s name. As she experiences terrifying visions of The Hangman stalking the shadows and threatening to murder Cade with a noose, Auna questions if her sanity might be cracking. If it isn¡¯t her mind going mad, Auna fears she¡¯s invoked a curse that could kill her once The Hangman finishes tormenting everyone else.
¡°The Gallows Act II¡± is nothing if not a capable little fright film. It earns passing grades in virtually every subject from acting and lighting to effects and art design.
Somewhere along the line though, it seems like a reedit to keep things acceptably copacetic took all the teeth out of the production. One jarring montage smashes together threads of Auna irrationally blowing off her beau, struggling with a class assignment, and watching another victim¡¯s distressing videos with no concern for flow or continuity. One gets the impression certain side stories were reduced or redacted and the film found itself in a pickle trying to sensibly reintegrate necessary exposition.
Much of the movie runs at only 75% speed too. Slow creeps into jump scares and establishing shots like walking from one room to another go on incredibly long, like their predominant purpose is providing padding rather than heightening meaningful moments. There aren¡¯t satisfying pops so much as an inflatable tube man flapping weakly in the car lot wind.
The straw that truly kicks down the score is an intelligence-insulting ending. The ending doesn¡¯t just cheat the audience out of being able to play along with the mystery. It retroactively washes the movie¡¯s hands of responsibility for unconvincing scenes by offering a weak catchall explanation for why certain things don¡¯t make sense. How likely is it that two random girls in a gas station parking lot would recognize Auna and want a selfie? Why would an NYU scout offer Auna a full ride scholarship based on one two-minute reading? The same answer takes ¡°The Gallows Act II¡± off the hook for every offense at the expense of treating its viewers fairly.
The conclusion comes off as a ¡°wait, what?¡± moment in its immediate wake and doesn¡¯t hold a single drop of water in full retrospect. No joke, the more I thought about the finale as I typed the preceding sentences, the angrier I became. I finally went back and dropped my rating down further, which I don¡¯t often do. That¡¯s how preposterous of a taste ¡°The Gallows Act II¡± leaves in your mouth.
With no current plans for a third movie in the far more successful ¡°Happy Death Day¡± series, we assuredly won¡¯t see a third act for ¡°The Gallows.¡± The audience didn¡¯t ask for a second one anyway. Blumhouse didn¡¯t seem all that interested in it either. So pour one out for the deserved death of ¡°The Gallows¡± and raise a fresh toast to messrs. Lofing and Cluff. Freed from The Hangman, may the two men fulfill the promise their first film showed by concocting something cool, creepy, and genuinely compelling.
Review Score: 40