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The Pale Door Review

August 17, 2020 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
The Pale Door
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The Pale Door Review  

Directed by: Aaron B. Koontz
Written by: Aaron B. Koontz, Cameron Burns, and Keith Lansdale

Devin Druid – Jake
Zachary Knighton – Duncan
Bill Sage – Dodd
Pat Healy – Wylie
Natasha Bassett – Pearl
Noah Segan – Truman
Stan Shaw – Lester
Melora Walters – Maria

Running Time: 96 minutes
Not Rated

The horror Western is a particularly unique branch of genre film, and one with a (to be charitable) uneven history. Genre mixing is a popular convention; just think about how many horror comedies, action-horror, and sci-fi/horror films there are – and that’s just for starters. Nothing can freshen up a scary movie likely setting it amidst an entirely different set of genre rules.

While all the above subgenres or horror are generally beloved, the horror Western is a bit of an unloved artifact. There are certainly great films that tap the free spirit and gruff, complicated protagonists of the Old West, such as Bone Tomahawk and the underrated Ravenous. But for every one of those, there are plenty of disasters. It’s a bit of a roll of the dice to try and step down that path, which makes The Pale Door’s ambition admirable. Directed by Aaron B. Koontz, the film about a group of outlaws who fall afoul of dark supernatural forces arrives in theaters on Demand and Digital on August 21st through RLJE Films and Shudder. And while it may not hit the heights of the aforementioned subgenre classics it at least stands miles ahead of the trail from disasters like Jonah Hex or BloodRayne 2.

The film focuses on the brother dynamic between Jake (Devin Druid) and Duncan (Zachary Knighton), who9 are both trying to make their way in the frontier after losing their parents in an attack by masked men on their house years earlier. Younger brother Jake is seeking the straight and narrow life, trying to make enough money working at a saloon to buy back his family’s old property. Duncan, on the other hand, has gone the other direction and leads a gang of outlaws. Though the brothers remain close, there’s a strain between them about their different paths.

That quickly comes to a head when Duncan loses a member of his gang with a train heist coming up. Jake impulsively decides to volunteer with the hopes of getting enough money to shortcut his purchase plans. The job goes south, however, when Duncan gets shot and their bounty turns out to be a young woman named Pearl (Bassett) trapped inside a chest. Needing to find medical attention, the posse takes Pearl’s invitation to take her back to her hometown, where Duncan can get tended to. Upon arriving in Potemkin Township though, things go wrong once again as a coven of witches seeks their blood – and Jake’s in particular, for some reason.

In crafting The Pale Door co-writer and director Aaron B. Koontz finds a high-concept genre mashup that can basically boil down to “Cowboys vs. Witches.” That’s the kind of simple premise that can be easy to get behind, but by no means is it a surefire recipe for success (case in point: Cowboys vs. Aliens). You still have to find a compelling framework for the story and assemble all the appropriate pieces in place.

With The Pale Door, that starts with the screenplay by Koontz, Cameron Burns, and Keith Lansdale. The script is by no means a slam dunk here, as it stumbles a bit early on after a thrilling opening in which younger versions of Jake and Duncan have to escape their doomed home and parents. After that, the characters are drawn largely in tropes. You have Knighton’s Duncan, the outlaw older brother with a sense of nobility, and the meeker good boy in Druid’s Jake. Stan Shaw’s Lester is a former slave who serves as a father figure to the boys, and the rest of the gang are similarly very quickly summed up. The issue here is that the early scenes don’t to a lot to establish much depth to the relationships, making it a little harder to invest in the characters at first.

Fortunately, the actors are up to par and carry their weight well enough to get us to when the story kicks in. The story draws from some real-life inspiration; there’s a connection to Cotton Mathers, a real-life figure from the Salem Witch Trials, that ties into the backstory of the lead witch in Melora Walters’ Maria. That sets up an interesting parallel between our protagonists and our villain, all of whom have suffered as a result of hatred that is not based on who they are as people. The script is fairly good at handling this parallel with a light touch; it doesn’t make the connection overtly, but it does help make Maria and her coven a more interesting group than they may otherwise have been.

As things progress from a Western tale into the horror elements, Koontz draws inspiration from other films to portray the threat against our outlaws. The most obvious comparison from a visual aesthetic is From Dusk Till Dawn, from the witches transforming into a more monstrous visage to an action-heavy moment when things really turn sideways for the cowboys. There are also plenty of tropes from well-worn stories of supernatural evil, and a bit of Evil Dead sensibility. Working with what one would assume to be an extremely low budget, Koontz manages a few tricks and some gore effects that, while not stomach-churning, still achieve effectiveness. Bill Sage, a standout as the least moral among the cowboys in Dodd, gets a particularly innovative use of his cowboy paraphernalia during the train heist that feels viscerally horror-esque (and may be itself a callback to a 1980s vampire classic).

There are, unfortunately, some elements that don’t seem to be quite thoroughly formed here. The gnarly stuff once it becomes Cowboys vs. Witches is fun, though there is a sense of running through too-familiar motions. The title itself is taken from a famous Edgar Allen Poe poem about a man whose mind has fallen to ruin, which doesn’t seem to have much more than the vaguest connection to the film or its themes even though the film starts with the relevant quote from the poem. As the credits close on a somewhat predictable finale, it’s evident that some work on the script could have made this something really great. Even so, Koontz’ efforts along with that of his cast has at least given us something fun, and in this case, that’ll do.

The Pale Door is available in select theaters and on Digital/VOD starting August 21st, 2020.

The final score: review Average
The 411
The Pale Door isn't going to knock the socks off of any horror fans, but as a mashup of the Western and horror genres it gets the job done well enough. Aaron B. Koontz takes the high-concept idea of "Cowboys vs. Witches" and creates an enjoyable if somewhat slight film that has just enough of everything and knows what stories to be inspired by to pass its 96 minutes. For those looking for a bit of blood, a touch of witchcraft, and a smidgeon of the Wild West thrown into one, you could do a lot worse.

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The Pale Door, Jeremy Thomas