The Pale Door, 2020.
Directed by Aaron B. Koontz.
Starring Melora Walters, Noah Segan, Zachary Knighton, Stan Shaw, Natasha Bassett, Devin Druid, Bill Sage, Pat Healy, James Landry Hébert, and Tina Parker.
After a train robbery goes bad, two brothers leading a gang of cowboys must survive the night in a ghost town inhabited by a coven of witches.
Horror and westerns are, under this roof, considered as natural a pairing as pork and beans. Normalize more spooky Wild West cinema, please! Aaron B. Koontz’s The Pale Door is the latest quickdraw haunter to hit “theaters” (on-demand is the new theater), and it’s enough to fulfill that craving for a stagecoach cookout cut short by demon hordes. I’ll admit, one aspect of this subgenre hybrid works a bit better than the other. However, as an indie saloon-brawlin’ tale, we’re still given full transportation into tumbleweeds and nightmares territory. On a budget, no less.
Koontz and his co-writers (Cameron Burns, Keith Lansdale) work all the staples of western narratives into their story about the Dalton gang. Duncan (Zachary Knighton), the outlaw leader, readies his band of merry(ish) rogues to rob a train of its precious cargo. Little brother Jake (Devin Druid), Duncan’s only remaining family, rides along for his first smash-and-grab mission. After a shootout, the crew discovers a muzzled woman locked within a treasure chest. Pearl (Natasha Bassett) leads the misfits back to her ghost town, they’re granted refuge inside a brothel run by Maria (Melora Walters), and then the women reveal their true, undead selves.
It’s From Dusk Till Dawn just without Danny Trejo and witches instead of vampires. One a smaller scale. The film excels whenever horror elements takeover, even if there’s some murkiness around abilities and motivations, as varmints blast their six-shooters at scorched women of the night. Koontz’ coven can climb walls, and wear the soot-black scars of fiery witch trails to symbolize their once-torturous fates. There’s fun to be had when Maria’s attacking ranks jump about with gravitationally ignorant agility, those spurred by holy men with “righteous” crosshairs.
Instigating western lead-ins with posted wanted signs and ranch invasions aren’t as memorable, which makes for a slower start. The Pale Door focuses on getting viewers to Maria’s den of sin, almost negating the proper attention paid to beginning setups. Dalton’s dream-team tumbles over barroom chairs like buffoons, there’s a duel that leads to Jake’s enlisting for the job, and Pinkertons are peppered with bullets while trying to protect precious cargo. All necessary actions that drive Duncan, Jake, and the rest to Pearl’s alternate reality hometown. Just nothing that sticks around in your memory once women of pleasure turn to monsters after midnight.
The roster of character actors hidden behind bandit bandanas is an inviting wild bunch. Veterans like Pat Healy, who plays the bookman with a ledger full of unsavory contacts earned through slippery charisma. Bill Sage as the career stick-up artist who lives his life by trusting no souls, and survives on his own terms. Noah Segan interjects his usual schtick as the not-so-serious relief, Stan Shaw the voice of wisdom. Zachary Knighton and Devin Druid explore the traumas of their pasts as their supernatural predicament becomes an allegory for penance and forgiveness, but even still, The Pale Door is always better at being action-forward versus earnest.
When violent effects spill guts and the brothel backdrop becomes a bloodbath, visual storytelling intensifies with strength in horror picturization. Seeing the charred bodies of women burned at stakes, punished for their “heresy,” is so evocative and vivid a damnation representation. When Maria’s flock adorn red capes and animal skull masks, circling a house of God they cannot enter, cultism reigns supremely dreadful. Gory bits allow for claws to puncture human meat, blades to glisten through open mouths as they’re plunged into heads, and all those nasty bits that you’d expect from a horror western that’s loaded with creatures jumping from rooftops.
More of dis. I like dis.
“You’ll get what you want” from The Pale Door doesn’t sound like the most enthusiastic endorsement, but it’s no backhanded compliment either. Aaron B. Koontz’s overnight massacre a serviceable horror western that represents the subgenre through grit, vengeful magic, and dusty exteriors. It struggles to be as profoundly thematic as the whole “lawless mongrels pay for their lifestyles” scenario. However, there’s still enjoyment to experience as immorality begets retribution with gruesome results. Koontz might not “kick the door in” per se, but pulls up a chair and wins over his audience through tall tales of cowpoke signatures (that spur cheek-slice) and sinisterly seductive covens.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Matt spends his after-work hours posting nonsense on the internet instead of sleeping like a normal human. He seems like a pretty cool guy, but don’t feed him after midnight just to be safe (beers are allowed/encouraged). Follow him on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd (@DoNatoBomb).