There just aren’t enough horror westerns. There are a handful, sure, but they can more or less be counted on two hands. There are even fewer good ones: some, like Near Dark and Ravenous, are memorable and deserving of classic status. Some, like The Burrowers and Ghost Town, are a lot of fun. The rest tend to be titles like Dead in Tombstone and are best left forgotten. One of the most recent hybrids, 2015’s Bone Tomahawk, is considered “fringe” horror at best by some, not considered horror at all by others.
Director Aaron B. Koontz (Scare Package) obviously agrees with me about this lack of horror westerns, which is why his latest film The Pale Door is a terrific genre mashup that finds a traditional oater interrupted by a supernatural nightmare. Zachary Knighton plays the leader of a gang (one that includes Devin Druid as his younger brother, plus indie movie mainstays Noah Segan and Pat Healy, as well as the great Stan Shaw of The Monster Squad) who scheme to pull off a daring train heist. What they find on board, however, isn’t quite the haul of loot they were expecting, but rather leads them to a ghost town where they are besieged by witches.
Like From Dusk ‘Til Dawn before it, The Pale Door is a great “gear shift” horror movie, which is to say it isn’t a horror movie at all until the moment that it very much is. A good deal of screen time is given over to place setting: establishing the characters and their dynamics within the gang so that when things do ultimately go to hell, we are sure to sufficiently care. The core relationship is that between brothers Duncan (Knighton) and Jake (Druid), who survived the murder of their parents as kids and have had to fend for themselves ever since. While not laying it on too thick, there’s enough of a dramatic hook in their story to prop the movie up with an emotional spine – enough to support the chaos that ensues, anyway.
And when the film finally cuts loose, oh does it ever. The witches themselves are wonderfully designed -- part Grand High Witch, part Meg Mucklebones, all nightmare fuel. Koontz’s camera is sometimes too quick to cut around them or shroud them too deeply in darkness, but there’s a chilling effect to only being able to catch them in glimpses and flashes as they scurry across the ceiling in the background of the frame. I’d love to have seen more of them on screen, but perhaps that would have diluted the effect – too much of a good thing and all that.
I’ll admit that I’m the exact target audience for The Pale Door, loving both westerns and horror movies as I do. Others’ mileage may vary. But there’s something totally refreshing about a film that mashes up genres without attempting to comment or deconstruct either one. Koontz’s film is an honest, sincere, and affectionate tribute to both genres, further proof that the world could use more horror westerns – especially when they’re as good as this.
Movie Score: 3.5/5
The Pale Door is available in theaters, on demand and on digital.