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Movie Review

Excerpts from The Fictional Rulebook for High School Drama Programs:

Rule No. 1: "If your play involves some sort of killing device—a gun or a sword or, I dunno, a noose, make sure it won't actually kill anyone."

Rule No. 2: "If your drama program completely ignored Rule No. 1 years earlier, and if (by some miracle) the school district did not forever ban said drama program, do not commemorate said horrific event by staging the same play."

Rule No. 3: "If everyone in high school has lost all reason and breaks Rule No. 2, please pay extra-close attention to Rule No. 1."

Rule No. 3a: "Especially if your school is haunted."

These seem like good, sensible rules to me. I applaud the authors of The Fictional Rulebook for High School Drama Programs for their foresight and no-nonsense savvy. Sadly, the drama department at Beatrice High School in Nebraska lost their copy decades ago and never thought to get a new one.

Way back in the rough-'n'-rugged days of 1993, the Beatrice Drama Club produced a play called The Gallows. Everyone agreed it was a great production—right up to the moment young Charlie Grimille climbed the titular gallows and accidentally hung himself on opening night. (One would think that this weakness in stage design might've been realized during the dress rehearsal. Alas, 'twas not.)

Tragedies like this are unimaginably difficult—particularly, I'd imagine, in a small town. And, admittedly, people grieve in their own ways. Some communities would do their best to forget. Others would memorialize the horrific accident with tact and reverence.

For the folks at Beatrice High, however, re-enacting the very same play 20 years later must've felt just right. Surely, that wouldn't dredge up bad memories for anyone, would it?

And everything might've been fine, too, had the star of the show been able to remember his lines.

In fairness, Reese is more jock than thespian: He only signed up for the play because he has a crush on its female lead, Pfeifer. It was only after he got the play's starring role that anyone realized he had the acting talent of a discarded Snapple bottle. So in desperation—the night before the play's set to open—Reese, pal Ryan and Ryan's girlfriend, Cassidy, break into the school to tear the set apart. No set, no play, right? Because, let's face it, no one wants to see Reese (ahem) choke. And because these teens seem to think there's nothing better than documenting wanton, illegal acts of vandalism, Ryan has taken it upon himself to record the whole thing.

The dismantling project goes swimmingly until, wouldn't you know it, Pfeifer shows up and wants to know what they're doing. Embarrassed, Reese and his pals decide to patch up the set and leave.

But wait: The broken door they came through is closed and locked, somehow. Just like every other door in the school. (Or at least the ones that open outside. Those that lead into creepy secret basements work just fine.)

Oh, and they can't get cell service, either.

If only Reese et al. had read Rule No. 1,485 from The Fictional Rulebook for High School Drama Programs: "If you're a terrible actor and have broken into a haunted school to destroy the sets for your creepy, ill-advised, misbegotten play, prop the door open. You know, just in case."**

[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]

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Positive Elements

Truth be told, Reese isn't a bad chap. He was talked into this act of high school vandalism by his less-than-honorable pal, Ryan. And he sincerely cares for Pfeifer. He cares for her so much, in fact, that when he finally has the opportunity to leave this schoolhouse of horrors and notices that Pfeifer isn't following him, he goes back in to get her.

Spiritual Content

Charlie, the kid who died in 1993, must've really liked drama, 'cause he's still (ahem) hanging around. He's quite the lethal nuisance (noose-ance?), too, stalking the hallways wearing an executioner's mask and carrying a gallows noose in his hand. Perhaps not surprisingly, it's considered unlucky to say his name in the school.

Sexual Content

Ryan and Cassidy are a couple, and Ryan catches himself on video making obscene, lewd gestures behind her back (including one that seems to allude to oral sex). When the camera finds its way into the football team's dressing room, viewers are given an eyeful of partly clothed players (though nothing critical is showing) and ribald, locker-room hijinks (shaking covered rears toward the camera and the like).

In the play The Gallows, there's a scene in which the two lead characters are supposed to kiss. We see a recording of Charlie kissing his opposite back in 1993, But Reese doesn't finish the scene with Pfeifer until near the end of the movie, when they tenderly smooch.

Ryan mocks the play's backstage foreman for playing a hand-slapping game with another guy. Then he breaks into the foreman's locker and cuts holes in his black stage outfit where his nipples would be. Ryan also insults other girls in the drama club (behind their backs) for not being pretty enough. Ryan's embarrassed when his mother walks in on him when he's wearing just a sweatshirt and underwear. Cheerleader's skirts are of the typically short variety. We hear a reference to testicles.

Violent Content

Charlie, like other teen slasher bogeymen, does his share of killing. Because he uses rope rather than knives or chainsaws, his violent efforts result in less blood and gore. But that doesn't make the movie's characters any less dead.

Two victims get strung up in the rafters. We see the face of one, looking very distorted and grotesque. Only the feet and legs of the other are visible. Two others die on the play's gallows, while two more are strangled off school grounds. Someone is supernaturally pushed from a high ladder, breaking his leg. (We see the misshapen limb bulging unnaturally beneath blood-stained jeans.) Cassidy is choked supernaturally, and resulting the bruises and burns around her throat get progressively worse as the movie wears on. People get yanked and pulled around.

Crude or Profane Language

One f-word and about a half-dozen s-words. Other profanities include "h---" (about a dozen uses) and 15 or so misuses of God's name (two paired with "d--n"). We also hear "a--," "b--ch," "d--n" and a few euphemisms for the f-word ("freaking" and "fricking").

Drug and Alcohol Content

None.

Other Negative Elements

Obviously, breaking into a school to tear down a play's set should be frowned upon, as should Ryan's generally disrespectful behavior toward all things drama-related. He mocks and belittles those who participate, calling them "drama geeks," often while his friends look on and join in.

Conclusion

I suspect that The Gallows' directors, Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing (the latter born and raised in Beatrice), were gunning for a PG-13 rating. (And given how sometimes silly and unbelievable the movie is, it was arguably made for ill-discerning 13-year-olds from the get-go.) It doesn't seem like these guys made a gratuitous effort to fill this 80-minute horror movie with loads of extraneous sex and language to snag an R (as some movies seem to do), and even the violence is less extreme than it could be given the rating. If Charlie had died in shop class, I suspect the results could have been much bloodier.

But let's be clear: Just because a horror flick is modestly better, content-wise, than its restrictive rating suggests, that doesn't make it good. Sure, Charlie never actually "slashes" anybody. But this is still very much a teen-slasher flick, with all the problems and pitfalls the genre entails. People die in terrible ways for other people's (i.e. those in the audience) entertainment.

In Beatrice's fictional play The Gallows, there's a seemingly sober point being made by the play's execution of a young victim. The audience is supposed to be moved or inspired or struck by the unfairness of it all. Alas, the movie itself has no such aspirations. The cinematic version of The Gallows wants us to cringe and squeal and laugh at the lethal misfortunes of others, to count the bodies that pile up on screen and leave the theater smiling.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

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Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

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