The Pale Door is the latest offering from Aaron B. Koontz, a filmmaker who’s quickly becoming one of the most interesting voices working in horror right now. In keeping with how different Scare Package, the beloved horror-comedy anthology, is from his debut feature, Camera Obscura, this twisty horror-western is another curve-ball. And yet, it’s imbued with the same highly personal elements that both Camera Obscura and Koontz’s shorts in Camera Obscura, are too. All three are definitively Koontz productions, even if they’ve nothing much to do with each other story-wise.
An Edgar Allen Poe quote kicks things off, which is never a good sign, but thankfully The Raven this ain’t. The score by Alex Cuervo neatly sets the scene in the Old West, where a couple of brothers experience a traumatic event that causes one of them to grow up to be an outlaw and the other to be something slightly softer. Happy Endings star Zachary Knighton heads up an impressive, eclectic cast as Duncan, the older of the two brothers. As both guardian for Devin Druid’s Jake and the leader of a ragtag bunch of no-goods, he’s got just enough macho energy and hints of a fractured psyche to convince (along with an impressive beard).
Although everybody looks a bit too clean to be actual outlaws, the gang is refreshingly diverse, including a woman, a Native American, and a Black man, which, let’s face it, is likely more accurate to the times than what we’ve seen in virtually every western movie prior. Horror faves Pat Healy and Noah Segan (who also appeared in Scare Package and Camera Obscura, making him something of a Koontz regular) are among their number, alongside the legendary Stan Shaw and We Are What We Are‘s Bill Sage. Watching great character actors simply being given the space to perform is always a joy, but it’s particularly lovely when they’re clad in full-on western drag.
After a botched train robbery, the gang happens upon a young woman named Pearl (Natasha Bassett), who’s tied up, Hannibal Lecter-style, in a box so we know she’s dangerous even if they take her for a scared little girl. Pearl convinces them to stop over in her hometown, which just so happens to house a coven of witches whose base is the local brothel (side note: a brothel is a great cover for a coven). Before too long, the gang realizes they’ve bitten off more than they can chew even if, as Segan’s character quips at one point, it’s still good to be in a brothel. These witches have no desire to entertain outsiders and they’re looking to visit centuries of pain on the nearest possible victims.
The Pale Door is an interesting take on an old-timey myth. It has flavors of From Dusk Till Dawn but the soul of Koontz’s movie is closer to something with its feet more firmly placed in westerns. This is no bad thing, particularly when the performances are so strong across the board. The story is deeply personal to Koontz, who co-wrote the screenplay with regular collaborator Cameron Burns and Keith Lansdale, and it certainly feels like it. The brotherly bond between Duncan and Jake is keenly felt, both Knighton and Druid’s performances emotionally resonant in borederline painful ways. The film is proudly character-driven, in spite of the many outlandish elements, and there isn’t a dud among the strong ensemble cast.
The horror elements are well done, too, from a horrifying spur in the mouth moment to Healy’s dandy character, Wylie, chewing broken glass to horribly gory effect. The makeup and VFX are super cool, particularly when it comes to the witches’ true form, which invokes Suspiria and The Witches but is also its own gross, icky thing entirely. The Pale Door is a bit rough around the edges, but in a charming way, and in spite of the well-worn premise (at least the western side of it anyway) the movie has a few tricks up its sleeve, including a twist on the usual sacrificial virgin trope that might also have a queer element, should one choose to read it that way. The crew shot on location in Oklahoma, and the setting provides the necessary tactility to suspend your disbelief and forget there’s probably an IHOP just down the road.
Much of the action takes place indoors, but Andrew Scott Baird’s cinematography is expansive, particularly in the case of one very pretty shot of the gang riding against a gorgeous purple and pink sky. Jillian Bundrick’s costuming is impressive, with every detail of Wylie’s OCD banker considered to within an inch of its life. Each character is given weight by the strength of the individual actor’s performance equal to their styling and traits. Nobody blends into the background, witches and outlaws alike. And, although the witches’ plight loses some of its steam as the story drags on, it’s easy to root for the outlaws and hope for their triumph in spite of everything working against them.
The Pale Door‘s action is ultimately charged with brotherly love. It’s a very personal story about the bonds of family, but it’s also a strong, genre-inflected western with plenty of violence and scares to keep horror fans occupied. As quarantine releases go, it ticks several different boxes, much to Koontz’s credit. Now to see what he surprises us with next.
Catch The Pale Door in theatres, On Demand, and on Digital from August 21, 2020
WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director(s): Aaron B. Koontz
Writer(s): Aaron B. Koontz, Cameron Burns, Keith Lansdale
Stars: Zachary Knighton, Noah Segan, Pat Healy, Devin Druid
Release date: August 21, 2020
Studio/Production Company: Paper Street Pictures
Run Time: 100 minutes