Written by: Matt Patti | September 1st, 2020
The Pale Door (Aaron B. Koontz, 2020) 2½ out of 4 stars.
It has been a trend in horror lately to do things unconventionally: many recent horror hits have highly interesting and unique plots, twists contrary to the norm, contain strong metaphorical messages and/or tackle an issue relevant to today’s society. To nobody’s surprise, these hits received rave reviews. However, as a horror-film enthusiast, I sometimes yearn for a standard but effective example of the genre. I love the intelligent and creative ideas coming to the industry today, but I also enjoy smaller films that are effectively creepy and entertaining, even if they don’t stand out or offer anything revolutionary. Now, Shudder and RLJE Films are collaborating to distribute a film that falls into this description: The Pale Door. The film relies on some clichés but presents an interesting story, interesting characters and a creepy and disturbing atmosphere.
The film is directed by Aaron B. Koontz (Camera Obscura) and follows a gang of cowboys who attempt a train robbery in the Wild West. In the gang are two siblings, Duncan (Zachary Knighton, The Hitcher) and his younger brother Jake (Devin Druid, Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why). When the train robbery goes south and Duncan is severely injured, the gang seeks refuge in a nearby ghost town. However, they soon find that the supposed “ghost town” is actually inhabited by many beautiful women who offer to help take care of the injured cowboys. Unfortunately, the women turn out to be a coven of witches who have much more sinister plans for the men. While most men are distracted by the beauty of the women, the innocent Jake is not so easily enticed. Can Jake help his brother and the rest of the gang escape the sinister witches’ grasp?
The Pale Door is strong in technical elements where horror films need to be strong: location and creature design. The Wild West vibe in the locations in the film is done well, specifically the design of the ghost town in which most of the film takes place. The film also does a great job with the look of the witches. The witches masquerade as beautiful women, but when they show their old, ugly true appearance, the result is quite disturbing and unsettling. I’ve seen many films try to pull off the classic witch look and often times they turn out looking downright silly, but thankfully, The Pale Door gets it right.
The film also has a strong character dynamic, specifically between brothers Jake and Duncan. The opening scene of the film establishes their relationship well, and we see them both grow following that. Duncan is a strong leader and skilled gunman, while Jake is more of a mild-mannered, nervous young man. Many of the members of the gang do not like Jake because he is weak, innocent and has never killed anyone. However, Duncan looks out for Jake and helps him along while also encouraging him to learn and become more assertive. The love and connection between the two brothers is felt throughout the entire film and is a driving force for much of the plot.
Though achieving success in the aforementioned areas, The Pale Door still suffers from its lack of remarkability, possessing nothing super-memorable or innovative, functioning more as a classic horror story. But, as I stated before, this does not disqualify it from being an enjoyable film. The Pale Door also suffers from forgettable supporting characters. Outside of Jake, Duncan, and one cowboy who acts as the polar-opposite of Jake (and his main detractor), the rest of the gang and the entire coven of witches are substandard. There are also a few times in the film where the members of the gang do not seem like they are cowboys. This could be performance-related, as I do not buy some of the Western accents at all.
Overall, though, I find The Pale Door an enjoyable and effective horror film. It is not terrifying or even really scary at any point, but it is creepy and macabre enough to be interesting. Through good set design, costuming and creature design, the film transports its viewers to a time in a lawless ghost town where gun-toting cowboys fall prey to manipulative, repulsive witches. Combine those technical elements with decent character development and dynamics, and in my book you have an overall successful horror film, even if it is conventional.