Review: THE PALE DOOR Suffers From Too Many Missed Opportunities
Anyone expecting to see, let alone hear about, a “pale door” in Austin-based filmmaker Aaron B. Koontz’s (Camera Obscura) horror-western, The Pale Door, will be sorely disappointed. Co-writer and director Koontz lifted the title for his film from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “The Haunted Palace.” And with respected horror-western writer Joe R. Lansdale (Hap & Leonard, Cold in July, Bubba Ho-Tep) executive producing and Lansdale’s son, Keith, on co-scriptwriting duties, it’s not unreasonable to expect we’re about to see and hear something a cut about the usual, straight-to-streaming or straight-to-VOD fare. Unfortunately, The Pale Door doesn’t rise to even the most minimal of expectations. Whether hamstrung by a limited budget, a lack of imagination or creativity, or both, The Pale Door fails to deliver anything beyond a few dollops of well-executed gore and grisly, gruesome character exits.
The Pale Door centers on Duncan (Zachary Knighton) and Jake (Devin Druid) Dalton. As the leader of the (heavily fictionalized) Dalton Gang, Duncan gladly operates on the wrong side of the law, taking what he wants when he wants with his tightly knit gang, all the while clearly steering his younger brother, Jake, to a more stable, crime-free life. When, though, one of Dalton’s more volatile members goads a bounty hunter into a shootout and loses, Duncan’s down a man and Jake’s all-too-willing to step in to help with a train robbery. With the train scheduled for that same night, Dalton sets aside his concerns for Jake’s immediate safety and allows Jake to join his gang as a lookout man.
Less a robbery than a gleeful slaughter of Pinkerton agents, the Dalton Gang initially escapes unscathed, but the inexperienced Jake’s indecision leads directly to Duncan suffering a near mortal injury. The trunk they retrieve from the train doesn’t contain cold, hard cash or gold bullion, however. It contains a shackled young woman, Pearl (Natasha Bennett), in a Hannibal Lector-style face mask who promises the Dalton Gang medical help for Duncan and unspecified physical pleasures for the men in the town, Potemkin Township, she calls home.
That’s all set-up, of course, a long, over-extended set-up that includes an unnecessary prologue featuring younger versions of the Daltons and their longtime protector and ex-slave, Lester (Stan Shaw), along with slow-drip exposition, and barely sketched-in characterizations to identify the other members of the Dalton Gang. Besides Duncan, Jake, and Lester, only two other members, Dodd (Bill Sage) and Wylie (Pat Healy), stand out, less for how they’re written or directed, and more for the performers who embody and elevate otherwise limited, disposable characters. In the town, the Dalton Gang encounters a coven of witches initially masquerading as a brothel. Led by Maria (Melora Walters), Pearl’s 200-year-old mother (she doesn’t look a day over 45), the coven leverage male desire, lust, and overall ignorance. Jake’s general inexperience piques Maria’s interest as his blood might hold the key to long(er) life for the coven.
Too slow to start and too fitfully engaging when it actually does start, The Pale Door avoids flatlining altogether thanks to a handful of blood- and gore-splattered set pieces, including a From Dusk Til Dawn-inspired brothel scene that leans heavily on practical effects, though that happens well past the half-way mark. Even then, The Pale Door repeatedly stops in its tracks for sit-down chats between the central non-coven characters to casually discuss their pasts, backstories, and their respective feelings. Not unexpectedly, Koontz and his collaborators depict the coven as one-dimensional, life-sucking, vampire-like villains (reflecting, as always, a deep-seated fear of female sexuality and procreativity). By the time The Pale Door reaches its climactic, pre-credits moment, a bonding moment between brothers possibly seeing each other for the last time, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to care for their individual or collective fates.
The Pale Door will be released on VOD on Friday, August 21.