When a film opens with a quote from horror master Edgar Allan Poe, you know you’re in for something interesting. Especially when that film is a story about outlaws vs witches…
…Now available on blu-ray from RLJE Films, director Aaron B. Koontz’s The Pale Door is standard saloon horror on the surface, with fast guns, deadly characters, gore and ugly as hell witches, but underneath the surface of it all is a hard-hitting story about the bonds of both brotherhood and sisterhood, and the sacrifices we make for each.
Set under a Western backdrop and opening on a tragic night in which two boys lose their parents, The Pale Door finds the boys years later and all grown up, leading two very different lives. Duncan (Zachary Knighton) is the leader of a gang of outlaws, desperate to keep his little brother Jake (Devin Druid) sheltered from a life of crime. But when one of Duncan’s men is gunned down, Jake offers to take his spot in a train heist. Everything goes according to plan at first, until the heist offers more woman and less gold than the gang was expecting, finding Pearl (Natasha Bassett) chained up inside a trunk. Seeking a reward, the gang takes her back to her town, where they find a coven of witches waiting.
“We’re just gonna follow her now”, questions Dodd (Bill Sage), with Truman (Noah Segan) replying, “She did say brothel”. And this is why men are so bad at surviving horror films.
The similarities between The Pale Door and From Dusk Till Dawn are obvious (a brothel of monstrous women, outlaw brothers, heaps of dead bodies), but the comparison ends there, because right away, The Pale Door is much more of a heartfelt experience than anything else like it. As Koontz reveals on the commentary, much of The Pale Door was inspired by he and his own brother. Koontz tells us that his younger brother suffers from addiction, which he believes is related to their father, and that he has spent his life looking out for him. In The Pale Door, Duncan is looking out for Jake, sheltering him from secrets about their father. All of that feeling comes out in the writing from Koontz, Cameron Burns and Keith Lansdale. Accompanied by the heart wrenching performances of the actors (a role which Druid in particular shines), and the melancholic score from Alex Cuervo, The Pale Door had this black-hearted sumbitch tearing up before the opening credits even rolled.
At one point, head witch Maria (Melora Walters) says “there’s only two kinds of family, the one you’re born into, and the one you find along the way,” and it’s what The Pale Door is all about. Duncan and Jake may be at the heart of the story, but keeping the blood flowing is the fact that the men and women of Duncan’s gang will do anything for each other. Just as the witches of the coven will do anything for their sisters. I’ve been on a tirade recently of needing more positive male relationships in horror, and The Pale Door satisfies that like a cold beer at the bar. I never got the sense that these men wouldn’t die for each other, that they didn’t have a deep love and a history together. These are the kind of cow-bros that are willing to dig glass out of another’s bloody, disgusting mouth.
As for the witches, these crispy witch-wursts remind of the creatures from Demon Knight in all of their creepy viciousness. Hunched over. Strands of hair hanging here and there. Noses curved. Ugly. They’re one of the more unique interpretations of witches I’ve seen, maintaining their burnt bodies when they’re not appearing as beautiful, blood-bathing succubi. One of the films Koontz lists as inspiration is The Descent, and these witches have all of the flesh-tearing nastiness of those monsters, with Walters leading the way in a magnetic performance that’s impossible to take your eyes off of, unless they’re ripped out by one of her “sisters”.
The Descent isn’t the only Neil Marshall film that comes to mind while watching The Pale Door.
During one long, glorious sequence in which the gang first discovers that this oasis of women is actually home to monsters, we’re treated to a shoot-out that sees witches climbing on the ceiling. Eyes gouged out. Bodies flying. It’s an action-packed moment that has all the passion and grit behind films like Dog Soldiers, another low-budget flick that puts every penny on screen. The blood at one point literally rains down in this film. Despite the budget, Koontz and crew made sure every dollar was well spent, and it shows up on screen. You might just have to wipe the blood away to see it.
Quick note: you can never come back from being mid-coitous with a burnt zombie witch. The horror the characters in The Pale Door experience is real.
The Pale Door is the kind of the film that grows on you like a witch’s wart the more you watch it. Koontz didn’t set out to deliver a standard, gory creature feature. The Pale Door is anything but standard, an emotional tale of unrelenting love and what we do for those we care about, that just happens to have monsters and a ton of gore.
An in-depth making of feature details the inspired creativity of Kootnz, Burns and their team, and all they went through to get this film made (including braving tornadoes), with a message that no matter how often someone says no to your passion project, just get out there and do it. Don’t give up. Koontz and Burns are admirable filmmakers, and it’s a joy to listen to the commentary as they explain the soul poured into the film, joking about movies such as everything from Snake Eyes to Magnolia and how these films affected their own careers and The Pale Door. This is a must own disc for anyone looking for some inspiration from filmmakers who truly put their blood, sweat and tears into their work, and were willing to go beyond The Pale Door when no one else would let them.
The Pale Door is now available on DVD/Blu-ray from RLJE Films. Check out the fill list of special features below.
By Matt Konopka