Studio: RLJE Films/Shudder
Director: Aaron B. Koontz
Writer: Aaron B. Koontz, Cameron Burns, Keith Lansdale
Producer: Roman Dent, Matthew Thomas, James Norrie, Inderpal Singh, Ashleigh Snead, Cameron Burns, Aaron B. Koontz
Stars: Devin Druid, Zachary Knighton, Bill Sage, Pat Healy, Natasha Bassett, Stan Shaw, Melora Walters, Noah Segan, James Landry Hebert
An outlaw gang crosses paths with a coven of ghoulish witches after a Wild West train robbery yields unexpected spoils.
¡°Hey little brother.¡± ¡°Hey big brother.¡±
Those are the first words spoken in ¡°The Pale Door.¡± I initially thought this was a blatantly butterfingers method of including expository information in cursory dialogue. It turns out this exchange is the colloquial way Duncan and Jake have greeted one another since childhood.
Following a ranch raid that resulted in the deaths of their parents, Duncan and Jake remained emotionally close despite taking two vastly different life paths. Kind, quiet, and honest, Jake spent the last few years sweeping up dusty bar floors. Duncan however went on to lead the outlaw ¡®Dalton Gang,¡¯ and they¡¯ve been boozing and bandit-ing their way through the Wild West ever since.
A shootout¡¯s unfortunate outcome has Duncan¡¯s crew in need of another member to pull off a heist. Wouldn¡¯t you know it, that makes the timing perfect for an unlikely sibling reunion. Robbery really isn¡¯t Jake¡¯s thing, but being back together with his big brother is. So off everyone goes in search of a supposedly huge haul on a Pinkerton-protected train.
Except instead of gold, what everyone finds is a muzzled woman, Pearl, locked in a trunk. Jake takes pity on the poor girl¡¯s plight while Duncan¡¯s crooked crony Dodd stays suspicious about why she was kept captive in the first place. Under normal circumstances, Duncan would have the last word, but he took a bullet during the looting and now lies bleeding to death from a hole in his stomach.
Pearl promises Duncan can get help at the tiny ghost town she came from. When the men, and the lone woman on their roster, arrive at Potemkin Township, they find a brothel packed full of gorgeous girls anxious to fulfill their every desire. This sets everyone up to learn the hard way that these beautiful women are actually horrid hags with a secret connection to Salem. Although these witches want Jake¡¯s innocent blood for their next wicked ritual, they have carte blanche to slaughter anyone else however they see fit.
When you watch ¡°The Pale Door,¡± you¡¯re not going to feel like a camera dropped into the 1890s and started recording. The film is too distinctly indie for that. Despite a cast giving everything they¡¯ve got, sometimes indulging to the point of becoming caricatures, there¡¯s always a sense we¡¯re essentially watching adults playing ¡®Cowboys and Indians¡¯ on a small backlot¡¯s false-front set.
The sticking point stems from too strong of a desire to encompass as many Old West conceits as conceivably possible. Aaron B. Koontz may never direct another western, so there¡¯s understandable excitement in wanting to stuff the sandbox with as many classic toys as he can. But when the end product presents another d¨¦j¨¤ vu vision of a frontier filled with bandit faces on Wanted posters, Mexican standoffs in saloons, a Main Street gun duel, and a great train robbery, it takes more than witches to make the movie read like it wasn¡¯t inspired by an average afternoon of ¡°Rawhide¡± and ¡°The Rifleman¡± reruns on MeTV.
Again, I admire the energy everyone puts into molding the atmosphere. There¡¯s still too much relish on individual roles. Not all of the outlaws need to do various Clint Eastwood impressions, smoking stogies while squinting or staring daggers with thumbs thrust into holster belts while boot spurs rattle against wood floors with every slow strut. Maybe tone down the tropes a touch, no?
¡°The Pale Door¡± isn¡¯t the most exciting movie either. An overwritten script exclusively uses conversation to drive drama. Whether it¡¯s Jake having a heart-to-heart with his brother, their father¡¯s former farmhand telling Jake the truth about his parents, or an outlaw exposing some revelation to another outlaw, scenes often pare down to put two people together for an intimate interaction. Then one person mostly monologues while his sounding board occasionally reacts with a prompt to keep the exchange going.
Separate instances of this setup aren¡¯t inherently misapplied in and of themselves. The recurring dynamic of two people talking simply sticks out after the third or fourth time, and the count continues increasing from there. The movie entrenches itself in text at the expense of action, lightening ¡°The Pale Door¡¯s¡± scattered bursts of bloody horror while the wordy melodrama meter balloons upward at a disproportionate rate.
Period accurate costumes and a standout musical score make up some of the mileage lost on illusion-breaking edges like nighttime scenes conspicuously lit by a 10,000-watt moon outside the windows. ¡°The Pale Door¡± can¡¯t help but wear grassroots guerrilla style on its sleeve, although the movie manages to dress up in finer silks when it comes to stunts, practical FX, and other areas of more import. If shabbier seams such as spots of soft focus were sewn tighter, ¡°The Pale Door¡± might not seem stitched from so many inconsistent pieces of clothing.
I¡¯ll intimate it once more. ¡°The Pale Door¡¯s¡± crew puts their best effort forward with as much confidence and creativity as a small production can muster. Yet the film¡¯s limitations in imagination and execution leave a lot of ground to be covered by a forgiving viewer¡¯s eagerness to say, ¡°close enough.¡± Without that willingness, the movie¡¯s uncomplicated story and slender design have a harder time successfully immersing the audience in its horror-western fantasy.
Review Score: 55