Horror western from Aaron Koontz, exploring responsibility and what it means to be good when one’s role models aren’t. Slow to start, though tense as it progresses and beautifully produced.
Horror overlaps with other genres all the time, but the horror Western is one genre mash-up we don’t see too often. A shame, really: I’m sure I’ve heard of cowboys telling ghost stories around their fire many times, so why don’t those stories end up on the screen? Well here’s one: The Pale Door is about what happens when a gang of robbers crosses paths with a coven of witches when dealing with the aftermath of a train robbery that didn’t go as planned.
After a brief prologue introducing the central brothers of the story, The Pale Door starts off with light banter inside and a shoot-out outside a traditional saloon. We know what we’re dealing with here: comfortable tropes and an endearing gang of crooks; jokes about the price on one’s head, dust, booze, and bravado. The leader of the gang is the older brother Duncan (Zachary Knighton, Flashforward), who reluctantly agrees his little brother Jake (Devin Druid, 13 Reasons Why) is now experienced enough to make up the numbers for the coming robbery, as they lost one in the aforementioned shoot-out. That relationship is key to the group dynamic of the gang, and the story as a whole; especially once they meet the other gang of the film, the witches, beautifully disguised as brothel workers.
Brothers in films have always struck me as interesting. Whether you’re watching Good Time, From Dusk Till Dawn, Basketcase, or Rain Man, there is always an unevenness between the two, one who is supposed to keep an eye on the other. In The Pale Door, Duncan is the one with confidence, and has always looked out for Jake; Jake is the good kid, timid in comparison, who doesn’t feel like he fits with the gang but wants to be a part. That relationship is well written and well played by both: Druid is a true stand-out in the film, though.
That light banter steadily becomes tenser as the gang makes their way to the planned heist, and the film becomes downright dark once it’s taken place; just as the striking silhouettes against sunset progress to shadows in the night. The individuals’ personalities and roles take shape, with familiar faces such as Pat Healy, Bill Sage, and Stan Shaw adding strong support to the central two. And then, there are the women… as well as one token woman in the gang, the witches and brothel workers make up virtually half the cast, once we meet them. Their striking leader Maria (Melora Walters, Magnolia) and her seemingly innocent daughter Pearl (Natasha Bassett, Hail, Caesar!) have a bargain to strike with the robbers, and it’s not an easy one.
Directed by Aaron B. Koontz (who also co-wrote the script with Cameron Burns and Keith Lansdale), The Pale Door is a welcome addition to the horror western subgenre. The special effects, once we see under the witches’ skin, is especially impressive, and the tension they instill in the gang is palpable. The plot works well too; and I like to think there could be other stories to go with it, either the witches’ background or a follow-up.
There are a couple of problems, though: the story, effective though it is, does take rather too long to get going. Perhaps the team was hoping for a plot in two halves, like From Dusk Till Dawn; but if so, the two halves could have done with being more evenly weighted. The other issue I found was the soundtrack: too much of it, and somewhat overdone throughout too, not quite allowing the audience to find its own mood.
The ending was a little too soft compared to the rising horror that led up to it… but I must say, some of that horror – images of the coven, especially – was memorable enough to compensate.
Available in theaters, on Demand and Digital August 21, 2020.
Alix has been writing for Ready Steady Cut since November 2017. They cover a wide variety, including genre festivals, and especially appreciates wit and representation on screen.