Producers: Ashleigh Snead, Matthew Thomas, Roman Dent, Aaron B. Koontz and Cameron Burns Director: Aaron B. Koontz Screenplay: Cameron Burns, Aaron B. Koontz and Keith Lansdale Cast: Devin Druid, Zachary Knighton, Bill Sage, Pat Healy, Natasha Bassett, Noah Segan, Stan Shaw. Melora Walters, Tina Parker, James Whitecloud, James Landry Hébert. Jake Ryan Scott, William Tate and Jonny Mars Distributor: RLJE Films/Shudder
Horror Westerns are a pretty rare breed, though there have been a few, ranging from “Curse of the Dead” (1959), about a vampire gunfighter, through “Bone Tomahawk” (2016), which featured a family of desert cannibals. This one could be re-titled, in imitation of “Cowboys and Aliens,” “Cowboys and Witches.”
The cowpokes in this case are really a gang of robbers headed by Duncan Dalton. We meet him as an adolescent played by Jake Ryan Scott, who helps save his younger brother Jake (William Tate) when their homestead is attacked by gun-toting invaders one night. As their father Vernon (Jonny Mars) is killed in the attack, they flee, aided by ex-slave Lester (Stan Shaw), who becomes a sort of surrogate daddy to both of the boys.
Some nine years later, Lester is part of Duncan’s (now Zachary Knighton) squad of outlaws, whose other more prominent members are hard-nosed Dodd (Bill Sage) and wily Wylie (Pat Healy). They visit the saloon where straight-arrow Jake (now Devin Druid) works to save money to buy the old homestead. When one of the gang is killed in a shoot-out with a bounty hunter, Jake volunteers to replace him in a train robbery they’re planning, and Duncan reluctantly allows the neophyte to join them.
Things naturally go sour. Though the gang dispatches the small army of Pinkertons assigned to defend the cargo, the heavily-guarded trunk that was expected to contain gold instead houses an attractive young woman named Pearl (Natasha Bassett). Worse, Duncan is seriously wounded—the result of a bad decision by grief-stricken Jake—and so the gang agrees to Pearl’s suggestion that she take them all to her home town where he can be treated.
The place at first seems to be deserted—its name, incidentally, is Potemkin, which is one of the movie’s few witticisms—but the brothel proves to have a full complement of young ladies (Pearl among them) and its madam Maria (Melora Walters) takes Duncan upstairs for attention and invites all the gang to have some fun.
Then all hell breaks loose. The women are a coven of witches and attack the outlaws. Many are killed off, but some—including Jake, Dodd, Wylie and Lester—survive by taking refuge in the derelict town church, where they are besieged by the witches, who sometimes appear as desiccated old hags and at others sport cultic robes; but in either form they are prevented from entering the sacred church grounds. On the other hand, the outlaws are trapped. The witches offer them an out, though, if they’ll turn over Jake. He’s what they want, presumably because he’s a virgin (although there’s a suggestion at one point that Vernon might have had some role in the satanic goings-on).
The script throws other elements into the mix. There are demonic animals about—ravenous wolves and crows (or are they Poe’s ravens?) that can flock together to assume the form of a human figure. And there’s a quasi-explanation as to why Pearl was kidnapped in the first place—something about Cotton Mather (James Landry Hébert), of Salem fame, who visited the place two hundred years earlier and burned Maria at the stake, which occurred on the very day Pearl was born. None of it makes a lick of sense, of course, but this is an “anything goes” horror movie, which throws in shock elements helter-skelter for effect but doesn’t bother to tie them together.
Aaron B. Koontz’s direction throughout is pretty pallid, which doesn’t help the cast, which seems hobbled by the languid pace (Greg MacLennan edited, along with Koontz) and Andrew Scott Baird’s herky-jerky cinematography; Sage and Shaw come off best, but Knighton tries too hard to seem gruff, and Druid makes a bland hero. Bassett and Walters, meanwhile, are about as convincing a couple of witches as Bette Midler and Kathy Najimi were in “Hocus Pocus.” (Tara Parker is particularly amateurish as Brenda, the gang’s distaff member.)
Nor is the physical production very impressive. It’s always had to attempt a period piece on a low budget, but Rebekah Bell’s production design and Faith Anderson’s set decoration fail to convince, while Alex Cuervo’s jangly, wall-to-wall synthesizer score is a constant irritant. The visual effects, however, are better than one might expect.
The movie’s title, incidentally, comes from the final stanza of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 “The Haunted Palace”: “like a ghastly rapid river / Through the pale door / A hideous throng rush out forever, / And laugh—but smile no more.” Oh, well: the 1963 Roger Corman movie that used its title didn’t have much to do with the poem, either, and Poe probably would be pleased not to be too closely associated with a horror movie with a silly premise that’s not even well executed.
“The Pale Door” is available on Digital Platforms and On Demand, as well as in theatres.