The Beach House (2020) | SHUDDER
I glanced at the official poster for The Pale Door and had a realization: The western/horror hybrid genre is an undervalued fun premise. Cowboys fighting ghouls, ranchers versus cannibals, I could go on. The poster alone looked promising and I was intrigued.
My experience in this fused world includes Bone Tomahawk and the contemporary set John Carpenter's Vampires. I recall describing them as “super fun” and “original and wondrous”.
Unfortunately, I will not be requiring any of those phrases in this review.
What makes a western movie interesting are the thrills and a sense of adventure. The staples of shootouts, outlaw romanticism, and the ritual dance of last man standing are tried and true elements in this wheelhouse. Director Aaron B. Koontz attempts all of these. But before the story really stretches its western muscles, the film genre-hops to the scary stuff.
The horror elements meant to pick up the slack sadly disappoint. Koontz thankfully skips on the jump scares -- a lazy device used by many horror directors. But the tools he does use don’t scare either. The manifestation of evil in this film is a coven of witches and they project about as much horror as garden gnomes. Koontz sidesteps tension in favor of wobbly action. I remember watching the 2014 western/horror sleeper A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and being gripped by anxiety. This is because AGWHAAT carries dread and mystery to be savored; its cousin, The Pale Door, creates a mood that is staggeringly uninteresting.
A group of outlaws known as the Dalton Gang are planning a big train heist. Their leader, Duncan Dalton (Zachary Knighton), is handsome, confident, and a natural leader. He runs with a wide spread of caricatures in his posse. There is the solemn native American, the cocky loudmouth, the nerdy bookkeeper, the brazen lady gunfighter, a few more expendables and a sagacious African American named Lester (Stan Shaw). Lester is vital as he took Duncan into his care years prior after Duncan’s parents were gunned down in the night. Lester also rescued Duncan’s little brother, Jake (Devin Druid). Jake isn’t an outlaw. He makes an honest living by sweeping out saloons and saving his coins. His goal: to one day buy back his parent’s land and be a rancher himself.
After a street gunfight, Duncan is short one man to successfully pull off the robbery. Reluctantly, he takes Jake on his payroll to fill the shoes of the look-out. The earnings Jake would net could enable him to get his parent’s land. The heist happens mostly without incident with a few exceptions. Jake isn’t cut out for the outlaw life and he stumbles as a lookout. Since his innocence stops him from killing, several train patrons escape the scene. One of these escapees returns and shoots Duncan in the stomach. The gang is shaken. The other bad news is that the treasure captured isn’t money or gold, but a girl locked in a chest. The mystery girl, named Pearl, knows a doctor nearby who can treat Duncan. With dubious caution and little alternatives, the gang makes their way through the woods into an abandoned town. There is no doctor, but a brightly lit brothel, open for business. The owner, Maria, has her girls treat Duncan’s wounds while simultaneously tending to the desires of the rest. Jake declines the offer of a woman’s company, resigning to the parlor. Maria takes a shine to him, finding his purity as wholesome and good. “You’re a special boy, Jacob.”
This is where The Pale Door shifts gears completely. Koontz attempts a hard left turn à la From Dusk till Dawn. The beautiful brothel employees reveal themselves as gross witches as they tear into outlaw flesh with their teeth and nails. At least in FDTD, I clearly understood the vampires’ motivation. The witches here arbitrarily murder their victims. I couldn’t tell if they wanted to eat, drink or just play with guts. The only revelation is that Maria wants Jake for his blood. His purity would ensure their livelihood for years to come. Or something like that.
The few survivors shoot their way out and band together in a church to guard Jake. I am still scratching my head about why a church was that close to a brothel in the first place. Soon, it becomes the formulaic “holed up in a building and repel various attacks” model. Great examples of this plot are Aliens, Dog Soldiers and Night of the Living Dead. Those films had stakes I was invested in. Here, I was bored. The odd scenes of witches doing witchy spell stuff were neither inviting or interesting. Everything in this film has already been done way better.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
There is a dynamic among the Dalton gang that feels genuine. You can tell they've been at this life for a bit. It was fun to watch them rabble and rouse together. Their rapport was reminiscent of the outlaw family in Near Dark. The coven of witches, not so much. Outside of Maria and Pearl, the witches are reduced to pretty faces or grotesque creatures. They don’t have much to do outside of attacking or being picked off by gunfire. Devin Druid’s Jake is asked to carry a lot being a beacon of innocence amongst criminals and creatures. Sadly, Druid doesn’t sell it. Knighton does well as the charismatic gang leader, but is criminally underused. The shining jewel is the scruffy malcontent in the gang named Dodd (Bill Sage). He has a snappy one-liner for any occasion and is easily the most interesting character. The dialogue in this film isn’t terrible and there are actually some tender moments delivered, particularly by the Lester character.
The western/horror hybrid genre is an undervalued fun premise...
The Pale Door (2020) | SHUDDER
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
The makeup of the witches was… rough. I felt like I was looking at rejected designs for Orcs. The gunshot wounds from the early train robbery shoot blood out of victims via vapid tubes. Some latitude is allowed given the obviously small budget at work here. The CGI witches that crawl up and down walls look cheesy and disingenuous. They took me out of the experience.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
The score here is serviceable for the “western” part of the story. That being said, the “horror“ half of this film handles the tone and atmosphere with shaky hands. The recorded dialogue is captured at such a low level that it makes some of the character’s exchanges indiscernible. The final mix of the audio tracks should’ve been given another pass to be more clearly understood.
I really wanted to like this movie. The premise was interesting, but it lacked conviction. There were so many risky and entertaining ways to work in and explore the mythos of the coven and gang. They just never materialized. The Pale Door promises much, but falls short on excitement and scares making this a forgettable yarn.