It’s not often we see such duality in both quality and release at the same time regarding a genre of film, but we are seeing it now in found footage horror with the release of Patrick Brice’s Creep and The Gallows from Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing. Both Blumhouse Production releases were produced by low-budget wunderkind Jason Blum, however Creep is stuck on VOD while The Gallows is raking in the money in theaters. Creep is among the best of found footage horror and is being seen by the smallest audience possible right now.
What Creep has that others don’t are real characters that are believable and true from the moment you meet them. The film succeeds at both comedy and horror on the strength of its characters, and in the first few minutes, Aaron (Patrick Brice) wins you over with some honest humor as he jokes about a hot cougar possibly waiting for him at a mysterious job. No hot cougar is at his destination, but waiting for him instead is Joseph (Mark Duplass). The job is simple: Joseph is dying of cancer and wants Aaron to film him the entire day so his unborn child can have footage of him after he’s gone, and Aaron will get paid $1,000.
Duplass is simultaneously unsettling and sympathetic as Joseph. There’s snark in his dialogue that would make the film a comedy if you didn’t spend the film certain of unease in the air. There’s a tension that’s both unsettling and comedic in the bizarre stuff Joseph subjects Aaron to: he makes him film him naked taking a bath, makes him go on a long aimless walk through the woods, scares him just to see how he’ll react and gets really personal with Aaron rather quickly. The cameraman is doing his best to be polite and play along — after all, Joseph has cancer — but how mad can he really get without feeling guilty himself? Joseph seems awkward yet easygoing, but small holes in his story begin to show.
Creep is a reminder of the creative possibilities not only of the found footage horror film, but also those that independent filmmakers can take in crafting a film on a microbudget. By embracing limitations, they can then be transcended. Director Brice takes the idea of filming a genre piece from the literal POV of a character, and more than once he inventively turns the table on the audience in that regard. It’s one of the only found footage horror films that doesn’t treat its audience like they are stupid. Of course this is fiction, but Creep engages with them in the way it shifts the ground underneath the authorship of the footage.
The Gallows, on the other hand, is the absolute worst, and it’s got a prime summer wide release. It follows four teens – Ryan, Reese, Cassidy and Pfeifer – as they break into their high school at night to tear down the set of a play called “The Gallows” (on the 20th anniversary of a student choking to death on a prop noose). The runtime clocks in at 81 minutes, but the film is an endurance test even then. By the time the credits have rolled, it feels like 160 minutes were just spent.
As soon as you give The Gallows any thought, its entire structure crumbles in on itself. To list off the faults would spoil the plot, but the twists themselves have nothing concrete to land on in the context of the film. In the ten minutes after our screening, myself and a friend were running down the amount of idiocy we had just witnessed, and in that time, we gave more thought to the film than the filmmakers seemingly had.
It’s been a while since I’ve watched a film that screams at the audience just how much it hates its female characters. Cassidy can’t have any interaction after being told by Ryan and Reese to shut up, and Pfeifer is constantly ridiculed by Ryan at every opportunity. The worst part is that the filmmakers intend for the sexist mockery to be relatable and funny. The fact that people in the audience were laughing along shows that there is unfortunately an audience for this awful film.
Give Blumhouse’s other found footage release from this year, Unfriended, some credit. It committed to its gimmick and mined all the tension it could from it. There was also a thrill in watching the awful teens get the tables turned on them, seeing them devour each other one by one. A lesson The Gallows (and found footage horror films in general) can learn from Unfriended is simple: if you’re not going to give us sympathetic characters, at least give us the chance to relish in their downfall.
The Gallows may be a horror film, but the only horror is that there isn’t a single scare, surprise or payoff in the whole thing — just a couple of awful teen characters. Ryan and Reese are football players trying their hand in acting class, Cassidy is a cheerleader — both get what they deserve. The only problem is you can’t even enjoy watching them get what they deserve, because every kill happens in a static-induced blur that cuts out any coherency in moments that should be climactic. When the credit of “Director of Photography” comes up, you just wonder what that person actually did.
The whole idea of flipping the script on these jocks and popular kids isn’t new, but it could have made for decent slasher material. Add in the look of Charlie, a malevolent spirit with a hangman’s outfit, and you have good mythos to draw on for a slasher villain. Also, a genuinely terrifying atmosphere exists in the high school at night. Speaking from personal experience, nothing is scarier than that. With even minimal effort, a decent slasher film could have been made here.
Blood, sweat and tears go into the making of even the worst films, but what makes them the worst is that you don’t get the sense of said blood, sweat and tears. Why is it that The Gallows gets a wide release while Blumhouse’s much better work remains hidden from the general public on VOD? After watching Creep, it’s no surprise why it’s only on VOD, as it’s a hard film to sell to a large audience and has thankfully received great reviews for a production so hidden from the public. But at the same time, how did The Gallows make it to theaters? Is the state of the found footage film really so bad that Blumhouse decided this is the best they could offer the public?
This October, the final film in the Paranormal Activity franchise, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, will be released. It’s a film that I’m genuinely excited for, but I’m also intrigued to see in what ways it will serve as a bookend for the subgenre of horror it helped kickstart. As long as a film like The Gallows can make $10 million in its opening weekend off of a miniscule budget in the $100,000 range, they will keep getting made. That’s just good business. But with such varying difference in range and quality between Creep, The Gallows, Unfriended and the upcoming Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, one thing is for sure — the found footage genre is at its most desperate to hang on. Here’s the question though: will that desperation bring the merciful axe down? Or will it spark new and creative ways of filming? With the mixed bag we’ve received so far this year, it’s tough to say, but Creep does go a long way in proving there’s still great films to be made in the format.
His Blazing Automatics is a weekly column by Dylan Moses Griffin, who has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.