The legendary Western outlaws known as the Dalton Gang have long been a subject of popular culture. But despite their criminal misdeeds, they deserve better treatment than the new “horror/Western” directed by Aaron B. Koontz (Camera Obscura), in which a heavily fictionalized version of the gang fight for their lives against a coven of witches. Prefaced by an Edgar Allan Poe quote that gives the film its title and proves the scariest thing about it, The Pale Door represents yet another stylistic mash-up that ends up less than the sum of its parts.
Divided fairly equally between its two disparate genres, the film begins conventionally enough with gang leader Duncan (Zachary Knighton) reluctantly recruiting his younger, straight-arrow brother Jake (Devin Druid, 13 Reasons Why) to participate in their next heist after one of the members gets killed.
Witches and the Old West don’t mix.
The job turns out to be the robbery of a train supposedly transporting a trunk filled with riches. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go as planned, with Duncan seriously wounded and the trunk containing neither gold nor cash but rather a young woman, Pearl (Natasha Bassett), who promises the bandits that if they return her to her hometown they’ll receive medical attention and a reward for their troubles.
That reward turns out to be of the carnal variety, since the desolate ghost town contains little more than a brothel run by Maria (Melora Walters, Magnolia, entertainingly pulling out all the stops). The men partake of the offerings, with the exception of the wounded Duncan and Jake, who confesses that he’s still a virgin.
That’s when things enter From Dusk Till Dawn-style territory, with Maria revealing her true identity as a witch who was burned alive at the stake two centuries earlier by no less an important historical figure than Cotton Mather. The same holds true of her coven, who soon disclose their true colors — or at least many other horrific features — as they begin turning on the men. It’s eventually revealed that what they’re really after is Jake’s blood. Because for witches, virgin blood apparently has restorative powers, much like the coronavirus cures promoted by the MyPillow guy.
The Pale Door lurches uneasily from its tedious first half to its gorily gonzo, special effects-laden second, the latter unfortunately marred by haphazard staging and frenzied editing that reduce even its potentially scarier aspects to a chaotic blur. By the time one of the older members of the gang complains, “I’ve had enough of this strange shit,” viewers will be shaking their heads in agreement. (Screenwriters should really refrain from providing such cues.)
It doesn’t help that the witches seem to possess enough different horrific aspects to fill a dozen such films.Only slightly more persuasive as horror than oater — you’ll see more convincing Western characters and gun battles in a ghost town theme park — the film at least benefits from the comforting presence of some veteran character actors including Stan Shaw (The Monster Squad), Bill Sage (We Are What We Are) and Pat Healy (The Innkeepers), who lend B-movie gravitas to the proceedings.
Available in theaters, On Demand and digital platforms
Production companies: Paper Street Pictures, Storyteller Media
Distributors: RLJE Films, Shudder
Cast: Devin Druid, Zachary Knighton, Bill Sage, Pat Healy, Natasha Bassett, Noah Segan, Stan Shaw, Melora Walters
Director: Aaron B. Koontz
Screenwriters: Cameron Burns, Aaron B. Koontz, Keith Lansdale
Producers: Cameron Burns, Roman Dent, Aaron B. Koontz, James Norrie, Ashleigh Snead, Matt Thomas
Executive producers: Giles Daoust, Catherine Dumonceaux, Tyler Gould, Matthew Helderman, Joe R. Lansdale, Chris Nevin, Luke Taylor
Director of photography: Andrew Scott Baird
Production designer: Rebekah Bell
Editors: Aaron B. Koontz, Greg MacLennan
Composer: Alex Cuervo
Costume designer: Gillian Bundrick
Casting: David Guglielmo