[Review] 'The Pale Door' is a Visually Stunning Piece that Opens the Way for More Gritty Period Horror
While, like a ghastly rapid river...
Through the Pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever,
And laugh-but smile no more.
-Edgar Allan Poe
Certain subgenres appear frequently in the horror world, such as slasher, found footage, and zombie films, but others just do not get as much screen time. Horror westerns—which might be more of a genre mashup—looks at the dirtiness of the Wild West and introduces gore and supernatural aspects to the new frontier. The list of possible films in this category may not be extensive, but does hold such modern classics as Bone Tomahawk, Ravenous, and even Tremors (yes, Tremors is a horror-western, fight me on this!). Due to the scarce examples in this sub-group, some directors might shy away from exploring such a unique area, but not Aaron B. Koontz. It took some coaxing, but because of a chance encounter during a panel, indie writer and director Koontz met Joe Lansdale (Bubba Ho-Tep, Cold in July). Through their discussion, Koontz shared his idea for a possible movie and Lansdale (and the panel audience) encouraged the new director to bring his interesting vision of witches and cowboys to the big screen.
A young boy awakens during a thunderstorm and finds comfort in the promise of big brother magic. Set in America’s Wild West, The Pale Door (written by Koontz, Keith Lansdale, and Cameron Burns) takes place in a time when outlaws chasing trains, robbing banks, and scaring the citizens existed as everyday life. So, the brotherly reassurance is short lived because their father soon barges into their bedroom with a rifle and instructions for the children to run. Outside, a group of men have surrounded the house and plan to kill the entire family inside. The night does not end well for some, but the boys manage to escape. Flash forward a few years, and little brother has grown into Jake, a hard-working saloon employee with hopes of buying the family farm (Devin Druid, Louder than Bombs). And big brother is now Duncan, a local outlaw who travels with a rowdy gang that laughs at the ever-increasing bounty on their heads (Zachary Knighton, Santa Clarita Diet).
So far, we have a solid western with a gritty gunslinger played by Bill Sage (We Are What We Are) accompanied by the typical outlaw gang with familiar western characters: loud brash female (Tina Parker), mysterious Native American (James Whitecloud), and the polite educated man (Pat Healy). The Pale Door uses its western setting to depict an unforgiving lifestyle which focuses on a long string of heists and the daily need for survival. During a saloon scene, Duncan speaks of an upcoming ‘job’ for his gang, but also fears for the safety of his younger brother. Even though his little brother is now grown, Duncan tries keeping him out of the world of crime and prefers Jake handle nothing more dangerous than a broom. However, due to an unfortunate duel, the gang is short one member and only Jake can fill in on such short notice. The job seems simple and Jake does exhibit some skill with a firearm, so away they all go to rob a train. The film lures the audience into a western world, but the familiar cowboy setting becomes a place of supernatural horror all because the gang believes they control the situation when in reality the dangers remain well disguised. Stopping the train and shooting everyone work well, but what the robbers discover on the train leads to quite disastrous results. During another shoot out, Duncan is injured and the supposed chest of gold only holds a young woman named Pearl (Natasha Bassett). This scene follows the typical cowboy shoot ‘em up with rifles and pistols, but Koontz throws in a bit of creativity with a spur which also sets up the viewer for the upcoming gore.
At thirty minutes in I realized the film was giving me strong From Dusk til Dawn vibes. Two brothers, the older one set on protecting the other, partake in a heist which involves kidnapping and then fleeing to safety in a brothel. The helpful Pearl acts grateful for the rescue and insists she can get Duncan medical attention if everyone would just follow her to her hometown of Potemkin. Which, if the cowboys had brushed up on their political vocabulary, they would know that a Potemkin Village is a deceiving façade. Around the time the brothers and their companions arrive at the brothel, the gothic aspects of the film begin creeping into the story and the movie becomes cowboys versus witches! And not sexy seductress witches, but scorched and hideous creatures who are a bit miffed men keep burning them at the stake.
The Pale Door smoothly transitions from western into horror, seamlessly blending the two distinct genres. Koontz interweaves tones and components of the western and horror genre throughout the narrative, moving between outlaw mentality with gritty backdrops, witch trials, and even touching on fear of losing family or oneself. The abandoned and portentous church which becomes an unlikely hideout for the surviving gang members, bombards the emotional and physical senses as Koontz intensifies the moment with expressions of familiar bonds for one another, but splatters these feelings of love with some unexpected gore as the men become the playthings of the witches. The bond between Jake and Duncan and the stress placed on family gets a little tiresome and even overly sentimental at some parts, but Koontz turns everything upside down inside the church and visually stuns us with both the gore and the church’s eerie beauty.
Narratively, the film does well with uniting the stories of the witches and the cowboys, showing how both sides deal with betrayal and death. Definitely a lesser seen subgenre, but once put together, the combination just makes so much sense. The outlaws represent crimes against social order, while the witches serve a scapegoat for crimes against humanity. Hopefully the movie increases the itch for more period horror. Koontz took a lot of chances with his film as he chose two familiar characters, witches and cowboys, and combined them into a very uncommon subgenre: horror western. He rode through some dangerous territory, but the gamble paid off.
The Pale Door will be available in theaters, on Demand and Digital August 21st, 2020 from RLJE Films and Shudder.
By Amylou Ahava
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