By ROCCO THOMPSON
Starring Melora Walters, Natasha Bassett, Zachary Knighton
Directed by Aaron B. Koontz
Written by Cameron Burns, Aaron B. Koontz, Keith Lansdale
Of the myriad genres to frankenstein together, Horror and Western seem like an ideal match. There’s just something instantly intoxicating about the notion of a dusty border town under siege by vampires or a lone gunslinger on the tail of his undead bounty. Yet, the films that attempt this marriage rarely deliver on the brilliance such a union would suggest. Truly great Horror Westerns (Near Dark, From Dusk Till Dawn, Ravenous) likely number in the single digits, and, despite his best intentions, Aaron B. Koontz’s THE PALE DOOR is another such stringy cut of supernatural cowpokery that should be more fun than it is.
Beholden to his outlaw older brother, Duncan (Zachary Knighton), shy saloon boy Jake (Devin Druid) agrees to join his gang and aid them in a train robbery. But when things don’t go as planned, the group takes refuge in a brothel overseen by a mysterious and accommodating madam (Melora Walters) who seems to have a strange fixation with Jake. As the men partake in drink and sex, the young man soon learns that the bordello is home to a coven of immortal, Colonial era witches with a diabolical plan for the band of fugitives…and it may already be too late to stop it.
THE PALE DOOR’s most conspicuous issue is just how pristine everything is. From stetsons to spurs, every stitch of fabric looks clean as a whistle and fresh as a daisy, giving everything a Cosplay-ish vibe. Immersion is further broken by the sets, which feel like the sort of “living-history” museums in which packs of grade-schoolers are invited to take part in old-fashioned butter churning and candle making. You half expect cinematographer Andrew Scott Baird’s camera to catch a glimpse of a gift shop packed stocked with cap guns and hobby horses as it rounds the corners of the characterless, unlived-in structures.
In addition to Knighton and Druig, the besieged gang is populated with familiar faces, including Noah Segan (Knives Out), Bill Sage (We Are What We Are), and Stan Shaw (The Monster Squad). They do what they can with the material, but the majority of the supporting cast members struggle to stand out as they embody a veritable shooting gallery of prototypical Old West “types.” The caucasian characters may be interchangeable, but Koontz and his writing partners really trip themselves up with hackneyed characterizations of former slaves and Native Americans. They neither subvert these depictions or take the time to develop them into something richer, choosing instead to hoist a white flag and toss in a barely-there gay subplot that feels like a morsel of red meat to mollify the film’s woker critics.
THE PALE DOOR works best when the witchy business kicks into high gear. Scrabbling across ceilings, crawling out of the woodwork like a swarm of human vermin, the charred yet gooey hags are initially a pulse-pounding sight, until they’re handily dealt with and our antiheroes hole up inside a church for some insipid jabbering. There are a few memorable images (a blood-spattered bible, a crow emerging from a dead man’s gullet) and a middling set-piece or two to follow, but the film grinds things to a halt to explore the wan story of brotherly devotion its overly preoccupied with to the detriment of both tension and sustained audience interest.
Though its cowboys versus witches premise delivers in fits and starts, THE PALE DOOR’s B-movie thrills are dampened by an abundance of flimsy emotionality. Its cast struggles to play against stereotype and the overly clean, manicured world they inhabit feels less like the Old West than a shitkicker version of Ren Fair. Though Koontz and his team do manage to create a few startling images and exciting moments, THE PALE DOOR robs its schlocky setup of fun with its overly talky script and self-serious tone. Leave your boots off, fright fans, because this is one occult barn raising worth sitting out.
THE PALE DOOR is available now on streaming services.