The Horror Western is an underappreciated merging of genres. Much like the history of the Old West, there’s so much untapped potential to sink into in this subgenre. That’s why when a new addition to the genre arrives, it’s difficult for me not to leap at it with claws outstretched. This was the case with Aaron B. Koontz’s latest project, THE PALE DOOR. Combining From Dusk ‘Til Dawn brotherly sensibilities, Salem witches, and violent visual effects, the film is a decent addition to the subgenre. What weighs it down, however, are certain narrative choices that slow down the film or leave one scratching their head.
Aaron B. Koontz directs THE PALE DOOR. He also co-wrote the script with Cameron Burns (Camera Obscura) and Keith Lansdale. The film stars Devin Druid, Zachary Knighton, Noah Segan, Stan Shaw, Pat Healy, Bill Sage, Natasha Bassett, and Melora Walters. In THE PALE DOOR, the two Dalton brothers and their gang rob a train. The robbery goes south after their leader is wounded. That and the precious train cargo is actually a young woman named Pearl. The gang, after dealing with the increasingly suspicious young woman, is led to an uninhabited ghost town for medical treatment. They are quickly welcomed into the arms of a brothel full of beautiful women. However, it’s not long before the gang gets more than they bargained for. The brothel is actually a front for a coven of witches. And, after discovering the young Dalton brother’s virtue, they will do anything to acquire his innocent blood.
THE PALE DOOR starts off promising, with a gripping scene featuring the young Dalton brothers fleeing from their homestead. However, what heightened attention that has been grabbed within that first few minutes dissipates once we meet the brothers all grown up. Time is taken to establish who the Dalton gang members are, though James Whitecloud’s Chief is grossly underdeveloped in his non-speaking Native role. Time is also taken, albeit unnecessarily so, to inform the audience of the Wild West setting. However, this has the unintended effect of slowing down the pacing noticeably. By the time we reach the train heist, the high-stakes momentum of the beginning scene is long gone. Fortunately, this is when things start to get pleasantly weird. And, once Koontz really sinks into the more horror aspects of the film, that’s really when the magic happens.
Narratively, there are some things that work. There are some that just don’t. There are little hints that something is amiss before the big reveal of the witchy coven. From finding Pearl (a nice little nod to The Scarlet Letter methinks) with a scold’s bridle to her sudden disappearance to a mysterious ghost town with just the brothel alive and well, there are red flags – both big and small – to deter the gang. However, the die is cast and their fates quickly become sealed. However, there were minor things here and there that narratively didn’t make sense. Or just left me with more questions than answers. From the head witch being burned by Cotton Mather in the Wild West town to the idea that Pearl intentionally planned all of this, these loose threads made certain moments a little bit convoluted.
What helps lift the narrative in THE PALE DOOR is the cast. You have veterans and fresh blood alike come together to create memorable characters. Even if they are morally compromised. Pat Healy, Bill Sage, and Stan Shaw shine, in particular, as the slimy bookkeeper, the untrusting lone wolf, and the paternal father figure. Even in the brief time we have them, Tina Parker’s Brenda and Noah Segan’s Truman make their mark. Zachary Knighton and Devin Druid provide the necessary heart needed to push the emotional narrative forward. I do wish that James Whitecloud had one line of dialogue in this. As is, his inclusion felt like a placeholder role. The witchy coven, led by Natasha Bassett and Melora Walters, take their roles and make a meal out of it. Especially for those who had the extensive FX makeup, they crawled and menaced with the best of them.
In negotiating that fine balance between the Horror and Western, THE PALE DOOR really shines once the film’s story steps away from reality and immerses in its horror. Once the action ramps up, the stakes are easily accepted due to the established relationship between the Dalton brothers. Throw in some stellar performances, on-point FX and gore, this film is pretty decent. What works against the film is how long it takes to get to the horror. That and some narrative loose threads that leave more questions than answers. However, the team behind THE PALE DOOR took a chance in tackling a difficult subgenre. And, just for that alone, I have to commend them for taking that plunge and creating this film.
THE PALE DOOR will be released by RLJE Films and Shudder in theaters and On Demand and Digital on August 21, 2020.
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