You may not be familiar with the genre term “Weird Western,” but chances are you’ve seen one. The term refers to the combination of a typical western setting in combination with something more atypical of the period. Think Kathyrn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987) as a small town battles a gang of vampires, Barry Donnefeld’s The Wild Wild West (1999) which employed a steampunk element to make the tale more advanced and outlandish, Guy Moshe’s Bunraku (2010) which blended the Japanese form of puppet theater with a post-apocalypse world, or even Gore Verbinski’s Rango (2011) which took the old west, animated it, and populated it with animals. Joining the ranks of these strange tales is director Aaron B. Koontz’s (Camera Obscure) The Pale Door, which takes 1830s Oklahoma and makes it a battle ground between murderous outlaws and unforgiving witches where the price of survival may be your soul. Co-written by Cameron Burns (Camera Obscure), Keith Lansdale (Christmas with the Dead), and Koontz, The Pale Door is a morality tale about how the cost of vengeance never ends with a single death.
Dalton brothers Duncan and Jake (Zachary Knighton and Devin Druid) reacted to the vicious deaths of their parents very differently. Duncan developed a gang and took to a life of crime, while Jake set his sights on a modest living so that he could buy back the family home. When one of Duncan’s gang is killed just before a big score, Jake volunteers to assist so that Duncan doesn’t have to call things off. The bounty the Dalton Gang was hired to retrieve turns out to be mysterious woman, Pearl (Natasha Bassett), whose entrance into their lives brings the promise of incredible riches. What the Dalton Gang realizes too late is that she also brings terrible misery.
The Pale Door is both exactly the western romp you expect and something truly surprising. Koontz, Burns, and Lansdale crafted a story that’s as pulpy as you’d find in a dime store magazine, one where the black hat hero has to overcome incredible odds, battling an evil greater than individual itself. That alone gives The Pale Door a fun, smoky flavor in a similar vein of From Dusk Til Dawn (1996), a neo-weird western from director Robert Rodriquez. The western mood isn’t just in the period or circumstance, but in the cinematography and direction. In the “making of” featurette, Koontz acknowledges using free-hand cameras at times, which makes the events feel more immediate as the audience is thrust into things with the characters. The transition from day to night includes muddy browns and sickly greens, inserting a sense of unease about what’s about to unfold. In a way, as we’re shown the sun setting, the frame looks almost sepia in tone around the edges, as though what we’re seeing isn’t happening as we witness it, but is from some time long ago. Considering that the film’s title sequence is executed by way of flipping through a recreation of famed witch hunter Cotton Mather’s book, the subliminal suggestion that moment evokes is not entirely unfounded. Certainly later, as the true horror begins, the audience begins to understand that time is a construct easily manipulated by those with the means.
Additionally, the film finds its areas of excellence in the cast and general premise. Knighton doesn’t partake in the general events as much as one might expect, which means Druid has to carry the bulk. The costume design for Knighton makes him look every inch the outlaw and the performance offer the audience the sense of awareness that comes from not wanting the innocent (in this case, Jake) to get blood on their hands. While some members of the cast are given more to work with than others (Sorry, Noah Segan (Knives Out)), each one is at least given a moment to shine which is not wasted, giving the overall narrative much-needed weight. Pat Healy (Cheap Thrills), Stan Shaw (The Monster Squad), and Bill Sage (The Wave) get the most to do outside of the Dalton Brothers and their time on screen is absolutely delectable. Shaw brings a certain gravitas and weight as Lester, the Daltons defacto father and keeper of family secrets. No matter what you think of the character’s choices as a person, there’s no doubt that his backstory is almost as tragic as that of the terror that hunts them. Healy does such a wonderful job of playing things straight, that when the shit hits the fan, his second-in-command, Wylie, will absolutely chill you. Given the thankless job of maintaining levity is Sage’s Dodd, a true sumbitch with a dark air, unwilling to let anything good show. You’d be forgiven for expecting Dodd to be a one-and-done joke of a character, but between the script and Sage’s delivery, you’ll find yourself rooting for him until the end of his line. Regarding the premise, the best that can be said for it in the least experience-ruining way is that you get exactly what the creative team sells you: a whole host of malevolence upon unworthy mortals. The execution of the pain and suffering the Dalton Gang endures is where things get fascinating.
The Pale Door is one of those films that becomes infinitely more interesting the more you learn about its origins, the process of creation, and the ideas which run through the film. It’s not that The Pale Door isn’t intriguing on its own, it’s that the tales which color the backstory are truly amazing to hear. Luckily, whether you’re watching The Pale Door for the first time or you’re coming back for more, the home release includes materials that will certainly enhance the total experience. For example, the opening mentioned is, by itself, cleverly constructed as a book upon a table from which the audience is shown a variety of pages as an unseen individual flips through, all while sparks from a flame fall down upon the book and a dark liquid seeps over the pages. The iconography and words, while not easily recognizable as they go by, exude the kind of supernatural sensibility a variety of tropes are based upon so the audience immediately gets the idea of what’s to come. It’s not until listening to the filmmaker commentary that you’ll learn the book itself is inspired by one of Mather’s own. This creates an authenticity to the opening that makes what follows far more cutting as its grounded in real events. Similarly, when an unnamed character gives a venomous speech vilifying a women set to burn at the stake, we learn that this speech is a mash-up of Mather’s own words. The speech itself, within the context of the film, feels like a means to insert motive and understanding to an otherwise already fairly clear situation; yet, by this new material, the scene becomes heavy and more horrible as these words killed innocent people in real life. On the lighter side, learning the connection between actor James Whitecloud (Hell on the Border) and the character he plays in the film, the silent man known as Chief, is truly hilarious and incredible. Every film creates stories in the cultivation, creation, and execution of crating the version audiences eventually see. In the case of The Pale Door, the bonus materials reveal one incredible story after another, whether it’s the hideous truth of the materials the story utilizes or how they had to scramble on a variety of occasions as fickle nature decided to set itself upon each location they seemed to want to shoot. These bonus materials really do make watching The Pale Door a far richer experience than only watching the film alone.
For all the good within The Pale Door, the story is fairly predictable, the depiction of the supernatural tends to lean a little hard into racial stereotype unnecessarily, and the set design often feels staged versus as a natural setting. That said, the applications and F/X work used to pretend violence upon the various characters, protagonist or antagonist, are truly remarkable. With some clever direction that’ll make you feel like the world is upside down and performances that’ll have you root for the bad guys (you decide which is which), you’re all set for an entertaining time. From what the creative team says in the bonus features, that’s really all they want: for the audience to feel entertained. On that, mission accomplished.
The Pale Door Special Features
- Filmmaker Commentary
- The Making of The Pale Door featurette
- Editing The Pale Door featurette
In select theaters, on VOD, and digital beginning August 21st, 2020.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD beginning October 6th, 2020.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.