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A FAMILIAR TALE
The Pale Door (15)
Director: Aaron B. Koontz
Screenplay: Cameron Burns, Aaron B. Koontz
Starring: Melora Walters, Zachary Knighton, Stan Shaw
Review: RJ Bland
There is something undeniably appealing about the merging of the Horror and Western genres. The lawlessness of the wild west, coupled with the lack of technology of the era and sparseness of people provide the potential for a variety of genre possibilities. However, generally speaking, there haveb't been too many attempts to bridge the gap between two of the oldest genres of cinema. At one end of the scale, Blood Moon and Gallowwalkers fell flat, whilst at the other end, Bone Tomahawk and The Wind scored a home run. Aaron B. Koontz's The Pale Door, falls somewhere in the middle.
Jake and Duncan are brothers who have had a bit of a rough start to life (their parents are killed when they are both kids). And despite a strong brotherly bond, have turned into very different adults. Jake earns an 'honest' living working in a saloon but Duncan is the head of the infamous Dalton Gang, a diverse band of outlaws. The Dalton Gang stop at Jake's saloon to discuss their next job and decide to rob a train the next day. However, when they lose one of their crew in a personal dispute, Jake decides to make up the numbers, despite his brother's reluctance. The train robbery goes pretty much according to plan (bar one notable cock up) but when the gang open up a large trunk that they hope is filled with valuables, they instead find a young girl bound and gagged. She tells them that she has no idea why she was taken from her home and that if they return her safely back to her town then they will be handsomely rewarded. They accept her offer and get her home safely. However it turns out that her 'home' is a brothel and her 'family' are in fact a coven of witches...
Despite boasting a strong cast (Zachary Knighton, Bill Sage, Pat Healy) and eeking out a certain amount of intrigue in the first thirty minutes or so, The Pale Door largely fails to deliver the goods, despite serving up a solid dose of action and violence. The western aesthetic is mostly ok, if a bit rough around the edges. The film's tone is a little harder to grasp however, in part due to an inconsistent combination of occult horror and western caper elements. There is also a real reluctance to actually attempt to generate any real sense of tension or atmosphere. Koontz's decision to focus on the carnage is initially quite fun but becomes a little repetitive after a while and we end up seeing a little too much of the assailants at times. It's an enjoyable enough ride, but it never realises the potential of it's super cool premise.
The following part of the review contains spoilers.
So don't read on unless you've seen the film!
Some have compared The Pale Door to From Dusk Til Dawn. Both are about outlaws who stumble into supernatural horror and both include a frantic five minutes of action about halfway through when the villains reveal their true selves. It's also a story that centres on a couple of brothers. The relationship between Jake and Duncan is quite nicely played by Knighton and Devin Druid, but The Pale Door seems so focused on this tale of brotherly love that everything else kind of fades into the background. Except the gore of course. But even these moments are hit and miss. Pat Healy cutting his own eyes out is commendably grim but there are a couple of other deaths that are off-screen or underplayed. This sense of inconsistency plagues the film throughout. The decision to portray the coven of witches as villains and victims removes some of their antagonistic power somewhat. They are simultaneously portrayed as old burnt crones but also as regular looking women but there appears to be no real rhyme or reason as to why they decide to flip back and forth between the two. And although the first time we see the old hags is pretty cool (that initial bust up at the brothel is probably the highlight of the film), we end up seeing a bit too much of them. There's a thin line between something feeling fantastical and something feeling a bit silly and although the practical effects are fine, there's something Roald Dahl Witches about them. And whilst that particular coven is terrifying, part of why they are is because we see them in their true form a little more fleetingly.
Koontz has managed to assemble a pretty solid cast here but they all feel a little underwritten. It's always going to be a challenge when it's a bit of an ensemble but they do feel a bit too stereotype. The order of their deaths is also pretty obvious too.
The finale of the film, whilst actually feeling completely logical and necessary, does feel a little underwhelming. Perhaps Koontz was thinking that after so much carnage, we could perhaps do with a more muted climax. It does work and Jake's decision to sacrifice himself does carry some emotional weight but I don't quite understand why Duncan doesn't fight for his brother a little more. I kind of don't buy that and the behaviour of the witches at the end also just felt a little convenient. 'Yeah, sure, we'll let your brother flee to safety as long as you let us kill you'. They spent the entire film terrorising the outlaws but at the end it all feels a bit too business like. And whilst I didn't NEED to see the entire ritual at the end, there was some sense in showing at least the beginning of it. Eek it out a bit more and make Jake's sacrifice more powerful. Alas, it goes out with a bit of a whimper.
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