By Matthew Sorrento.
Co-writer/director Aaron B. Koontz’s perceptiveness for the Western genre makes The Pale Door into a worthy hybrid horror.”
It must be an assignment in a screenwriting course somewhere, or maybe a guidebook: “From Dusk to Dawn It” – begin your script as road movie, and bring your characters to a pack of vampires, zombies, or witches. Though a fun way to bring on conflict, it’s an easy escape from the human problems that may arise in act one.
Before finding his den, co-writer/director Aaron B. Koontz takes a gang of Westerners on the road, and his perceptiveness for the genre makes The Pale Door into a worthy hybrid horror. Thankfully, in the first act the film offers something outside of “post-Western” – a contemporary rendition in a milieu that’s hyperaware of the genre, though there have been worthy entries, like John Sayles’ Lone Star (1996), Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrata (2005), and David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water (2016). Koontz’s production goes for something more traditional and pure; the film works in the genre’s “nostalgia” mode without any insecure meta-referencing to undermine the endeavor.
The script, written by Koontz, Cameron Burns, and Keith Lansdale, stacks genre devices right away – both a homestead raid and shootout appear in the first 15 minutes, with a train robbery commenced in just under 20. The film’s advertising promises a supernatural onslaught to come, though Koontz isn’t over-concerned with getting there. The film’s shootout is standard but offers some nice character buildup, and the robbery offers a plot point best left to surprise for viewers. The interiors show commendable, if not perfect, production design (much to ask for in a film of this budget). The family massacre motif, which is prominent in the contemporary westerns Hostiles (Scott Cooper, 2017) and The Missing (Ron Howard, 2003), here recalls Henry Fonda’s first appearance in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, the extent of Koontz’s direct Western referencing), though in The Pale Door human evil is just that, not a potential savior proving rotten. It sets the narrative forward and offers room to play against melodrama for more of a character-based approach: we zero in on Jake (Devin Druid), the younger brother of one who had helped to save him in their youth. Jake must survive among bandits but, earlier on, shows he can join and support civilization on the frontier.
To hint at the dread to come, the film Invokes Poe in the title (one that’s note-perfect for this film) – specifically, the poem “The Haunted Palace” (which was eventually incorporated into the author’s classic tale of mind-body torment, “The Fall of the House of Usher”). It also employs Cotton Mather to invoke the reality behind the myth of the frontier (“Mather IV” even exists in the film’s universe). In an able cast, unsung veteran Stan Shaw (Rocky, Snake Eyes) shows such confidence that he walks away with every scene he’s in (while mastering the action scenes later on; he’s underused in the first act). The truth behind a brothel where the gang arrives, headed by Melora Waters’ role (one of the film’s treats), nicely comments on the universal victimization of women throughout Hollywood and actual history.
This type of weird western is best discovered by accident on late-night viewing. Though with streaming surging even more during Covid-19, fans will continue to seek something like this out. The promotional material should draw horror die-hards who may not find much in the first act (though some gonzo shocks are ahead). I admire the gothic animated sequence in the opening credits, but a Hammer Studios-style flash of dread would have helped. One hopes that horror fans will get into the film’s initial strength: its use of the Western to show that the putative genre is long from dead, as Alex Cox has stated. As for the dread rearing in Act II, it nicely employs analog FX, while some digital appears (not intrusively) in clear action sequences photographed by Andrew Scott Baird. It’s a nice payoff in a film built initially on another strong traditional genre, one we should count on more.
Matthew Sorrento is Co-editor of Film International and teaches film and media studies at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. He recently contributed to Becoming: Genre, Queerness, and Transformation in NBC’s Hannibal (Syracuse UP, 2019) and has an essay collection, co-edited with David Ryan, forthcoming on David Fincher’s Zodiac (Fairleigh Dickinson UP).