Sunday, July 12, 2015


The claustrophobic, found-footage, horror chiller "The Gallows" (* OUT OF ****) keeps you hanging for almost 8o minutes with nothing that might either shock or scare you. The few ominous moments when the filmmakers actually frighten us are quickly forgotten. Most of the time, we see images of feet trampling floors, epileptic hand-held cameras prowling eerie hallways, and dramatic lapses when the characters deliberately avert their cameras from their devious endeavors. Sadly, "The Gallows" provides little that would alarm you enough to make you scream until you couldn’t scream. Clearly, rookie co-writer and directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing have drawn most of their inspiration for their woebegone tale from classics such as "The Blair Witch Project" (1999), "Candy Man" (1992), and "Carrie" (2013). The film follows three mischievous pranksters as they break into their own high school after hours to destroy the set of theatrical play scheduled to open the next day. Idiotically, they bring along both video cameras and smart-phones to document their mayhem. First, Cluff and Lofing must have enjoyed "The Blair Witch Project" with its frantic hand-held photography.  Unfortunately, shooting the events from a first person perspective does little to heighten the horror, and found-footage films have long since exhausted their novelty. Second, you can endanger yourself in "The Gallows" by uttering a dead man's name three or more times. Obviously, Cluff and Lofing appropriated this trope from "Candyman" and its sequels where invoking the bogyman's name three times served to summon the supernatural fiend. Third, the pranks may remind you of the depraved teens in "Carrie" that sabotaged the beauty pageant. Cluff and Lofing go to painful lengths to maintain an eerie atmosphere, but they never pay-off this white-knuckled frenzy with palatable hysteria. Mind you, good horror movies boast intimidating villains. The bogyman in "The Gallows'" amounts to little more than an anonymous apparition without a menacing musical motif to enhance its malevolence. Comparably, Cluff and Lofing have tried to clone him in the mold of Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, or Candyman. Basically, this puzzling predator with a noose never rattles your nerves. Furthermore, "The Gallows" neglects to adequately reveal either the evildoer’s identity or its motive for behaving like an omniscient force of annihilation.

"The Gallows" unfolds in 1993 at Beatrice High School somewhere in Nebraska. A parent with a camcorder is taping a costume play that resembles Arthur Miller's "The Crucible." A character is sentenced to swing from a gallows. Suddenly, everything goes horribly wrong when an implausible prop malfunction occurs. The actor with a noose around his neck strangles to death before anybody can save him. The premise about a high school play gone horribly wrong is provocative, but it is wholly preposterous. Imagine high school administrators allowing their theater students to stage a play with a fully operational gallows? Such material itself would constitute dire poor taste. Incredibly, some twenty years afterward this tragedy, the same Nebraska high school decides to commemorate the tragedy with a new production of the same play. Had "The Gallows" been set in an off-campus little theater, the premise might have been credible. Anyway, the night before the play opens, a trio of students vandalizes the set. One of them is the actor scheduled to put his head in the noose. A high school football player, Reese (Reese Mishler), has been persecuted without mercy by his gridiron classmate, Ryan (Ryan Shoos), into participating in this notorious prank. Ryan has convinced Reese that Reese lacks the most basic acting skills. Furthermore, Ryan contends that Reese will succeed only in making a buffoon out of himself in front of the whole school. Essentially, Ryan has coerced a reluctant Reese into participating because if they smash up the sets, the play will be canceled, and Reese will not have to expose himself to ridicule. Ryan's haughty cheerleader girlfriend, Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford), tags along for laughs. The trio wind up trapped inextricably in the school. Improbably enough, neither their smart-phones nor the land lines in the school will function since cosmetic evil permeates the premises. Doors which shouldn't lock mysteriously lock, and an ancient analog television rebroadcasts the tragic news report from the past about the hanging. Nothing that these terrified teens do serves to deliver them from this labyrinth where a humorless, supernatural spirit decked out in a hangman's mask stalks them with a noose. Complications ensue when another student, Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown), catches them in the act. She is the drama queen who spearheaded the play's revival and doesn't understand why they want to interfere with the premier.

Meantime, accompanying stupid teenagers through a maze of halls rapidly degenerates into monotony rather than melodrama. These cretins lack the common sense to wedge doors open so those doors don't slam shut behind them. Characterization remains sketchy, and nothing about these nitwits engenders charisma. None of them emerge as entirely sympathetic, so we really don't care when the hangman slings his rope around their throats. "The Gallows" relies on a largely unknown cast, but these amateurs acquit themselves admirably. As the obnoxious jock, Ryan Shoos is perfectly cast. You will hate this dastard from the moment you meet him. He deserves the noose that the villain snaps around his neck. Reese Mishler plays the only character with a shred of sympathy, and he seems to be channeling Tom Cruise. Reese is undoubtedly the most interesting and disturbed character. Frank and Kathie Lee's daughter Cassidy Gifford plays a repellent cheerleader. The production values are strong, and the high school really seems like a spooky labyrinth. Cluff and Lofing had a promising idea, but they never generate adequate thrills, chills, and spills. Subsequently, the atmospheric horror induces yawns more than yells. They don't make their monstrous villain into a larger-than-life nemesis like Freddy and his competitors. The scenes after the play when the police show up to arrest the culprits seem awfully predictable, too. Far-fetched and formulaic, "The Gallows “recycles standard-issue horror clich├ęs without traces of either originality or spontaneity.


"Great Expectations" director David Lean made what qualifies as the greatest World War II movie of all-time. I saw this fantastic film when Columbia Pictures released it in 1957, and the spectacle of an actual bridge being blown to smithereens with a real locomotive and freight cars trundling along the railway tracks on it captivated me at the tender age of four, and I have never forgotten it. I've seen "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (**** OUT OF ****) more times than I can remember, and this movie has never lost its allure. Basically, "The Bridge on the River Kwai" is a World War II action thriller set in Burma during the spring of 1943 featuring a predominantly all male cast with women in supporting roles as British nurses and Siamese cargo bearers. This Sam Speigel production received seven Oscars from the Academy of Arts and Science during their annual 1958 ceremony. The film won Best Picture, Best Director (for David Lean, Best Actor (for Alec Guinness), Best Cinematography (for Jack Hildyard), Best Editing (for Peter Taylor), and Best Music (for Malcolm Arnold). The film also received the nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (for Sessue Hayakawa). Additionally, "The Bridge on the River Kwai" also won Golden Globes for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor.

This stirring epic is based on Pierre Boulle's award-winning 1952 novel, but director David Lean and scenarists Michael Wilson of "A Place in the Sun" and Carl Foreman of "High Noon" took several liberties with the storyline. First, Boulle didn't obliterate the bridge.  The British commandos were able to derail the train, but the bridge remained intact.  Second, Colonel Nicholson discovered the sabotage, but he didn’t collapse on the plunger and blow-up the bridge. Third, no Americans, specifically the character of Shears, appeared in the novel. Fourth, although there was a Shears, he was a British commando, but he tried to cross the river during the finale to kill Nicholson. Fifth, the British said that they had to send in commandos because the RAF couldn’t fly the distance to bomb the bridge.  In Boulle’s novel, the British don’t send in bombers because they felt the Japanese could repair any damage from bombing raids and have the bridge back in action. Nevertheless, this memorable film brims with irony and answers all the questions about life. This movie also immortalized the whistling march theme "Colonel Bogey March." Interestingly, former British POWs hated the movie and wanted to lambaste it, but they kept their silence for fear that their protests would provide more publicity for a movie that they felt deserved nothing in the way of publicity.  This is a beautiful movie and the cast is stupendous. Although Alec Guinness won the Oscar for Best Actor, I believe that the incomparable William Holden as the only American prisoner of war steals the movie hands down. Holden made a specialty of playing anti-heroic roles.  As Shears, he is at his anti-heroic best. Sessue Hayakawa makes a terrific adversary. By and large, the Japanese are treated with respect despite their status as the enemy in this World War II outing.

Essentially, David Lean's masterpiece concerns a clash of wills in the middle of the jungle during World War II. Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness of "Star Wars") and his British officers and enlisted men survive a grueling march through the jungle to a Japanese labor camp where camp commandant Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa of "The Swiss Family Robinson") orders them to erect a bridge across the River Kwai. Saito stipulates in no uncertain terms that British officers will work alongside their men, but Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson refuses to abide by these terms.  He cites the rules of the Geneva Convention.  Saito’s reacts with incredulity, “Do not speak to me of rules. This is war! This is not a game of “cricket!” Saito puts Nicholson in a sweat box and the intense heat very nearly kills Nicholson. Nonetheless, Nicholson refuses to give in to Saito's demands. Meanwhile, construction work on the bridge commences, but the Japanese make virtually no headway. At the same time, Shears engineers an escape from the camp along with two other British soldiers and nearly dies in the process. Initially, everybody believes that Shears drowned in the river. The two British soldiers that accompany him die in the attempt. Natives find the destitute Shears washed up on the shores of their villages. He is deliriously and emaciated. He is in such bad shape that he mistakes a kite for a vulture. The villagers nurse Shears back to life, provide him with fresh supplies, and send him on his way in a boat. Eventually, he reaches British lines. Back at the Kwai camp, a desperate Saito loses the battle of wills with the obstinate Nicholson and agrees that the British officers do not have to work. Interestingly, Saito and Nicholson both believe that they are "mad."

Ironically, Nicholson decides to embrace the bridge construction so as to occupy his men and prove to the Japanese that the British soldier is the best soldier in the world. When Nicholson's chief medical officer, Major Clipton (James Donald of "The Great Escape") suggests that helping the Japanese erect a bridge could qualify as treason, Nicholson reminds him that they were ordered to surrender to the enemy. Nicholson goes on to say, “If you had to operate on Saito, would you do your job or would you let him die?Would you have it be said that our chaps can't do a better job? You're a fine doctor, Clipton, but you've a lot to learn about the army.” Nicholson and his officers devise a way of building a suitable bridge and one of Nicholson's engineers tells him that a similar bridge built of wood survived 300 years. Nicholson becomes so obsessed with the project that he eventually has his own officer pitch in and finish it.

The British dispatch a team of commandos led by Major Warden (Jack Hawkins of "Shalako") to destroy the bridge. A former university profess, Warden is an expert with plastic explosives.  Warden convinces a reluctant Shears to lead them to it since Shears knows the way. Shears explains that he cannot because he isn’t really an officer. It seems that when his ship the Houston sank, he swam ashore with an officer.  Eventually, after his superior died, Shears appropriated the officer’s insignia and impersonated him, erroneously believing he would receive better treatment than an enlisted man. Such was not the case. Warden informs him that they knew about his masquerade.  He also gives Shears the simulated rank of major for the mission. Reluctantly, Shears agrees to lead Force 316 through the jungle to the bridge. The four members of Force 316 bail out over enemy territory but Sergeant Chapman dies when his parachute drifts in the trees and kills him. Ironically again, our heroes must take an entirely different route because the route that Shears took is swarming now with Japanese. Since the village cannot furnish them with male cargo bears, they recruit women to lug the explosives and other supplies across some of the most treacherous landscape imaginable.  Our heroes have to make a forced march through swamps teeming with leeches, across rugged mountains, before they eventually they reach the bridge. Along the way, during a rest break at a scenic waterfall, Japanese troops surprise our heroes, and a Warden and his men have to track them down and kill them. During the fracas, Warden is wounded in the foot when Lieutenant Joyce (Geoffrey Horne of "The Implacable Three") cannot muster the nerve to stab the soldier.  All along the British High Command worried that Joyce didn't have what it takes to kill a man.  Joyce recovers his nerve during the spellbinding finale and kills Colonel Saito.

Altogether, "The Bridge on the River Kwai" simply ranks as the greatest movie ever made.