The Pale Door. 2020.
Directed by Aaron B. Koontz. Screenplay by Koontz, Cameron Burns, & Keith Lansdale.
Starring Melora Walters, Natasha Bassett, Zachary Knighton, Noah Segan, Bill Sage, Devin Druid, Stan Shaw, Pat Healy, James Landry Hébert, Tina Parker, & Alexandra Harris.
Paper Street Pictures / Storyteller Media / BondIt Media Capital / Title Media
Not Rated / 96 minutes
Horror / Western
★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)
I was a huge fan of Aaron B. Koontz’s debut feature Camera Obscura. Several years ago I wrote about it for Film Inquiry, and actually got to interview one of the stars, Nadja Bobyleva. Koontz did a fun little segment in 2019’s Scare Package that I thoroughly enjoyed, too. I may not be a huge fan of his second feature, The Pale Door, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t enjoyable aspects to this horror Western, one of my favourite subgenres. In spite of my issues with the film, the screenplay digs into several themes that subvert typical conventions and tropes of the Western while injecting mythical horror into the Wild West.
The story follows the Dalton gang, led by a man named Duncan (Zachary Knighton). After a botched train robbery, Duncan leads his men, including his younger, less cowboy-inclined brother Jake (Devin Druid), to find shelter. They wind up in a strange, uninhabited town. Soon they discover a brothel filled with beautiful women. It isn’t long until the cowboys realise the women are actually witches with sinister designs on the Dalton gang.
The Western genre’s been plagued with issues since the first white director negatively portrayed a Native American to make the white American male ego feel better about itself. The Western, on film and in literature, has always been heteronormative, as well as highly misogynistic and sexist— one of the genre’s known tropes, reflecting society’s patriarchal views, is the virgin-whore dichotomy: a woman in a Western is, more often than not, either depicted as a woman working in a brothel OR a woman at home looking after her husband and family.
The Pale Door subverts some of the heterosexuality ingrained in the Western, and partly uses witches as a vessel to look at women using their natural power against men to get revenge for the misogyny perpetrated against them. Though not all the themes are played out as well as others, the film’s a weird, wild ride with a couple redeeming qualities.
“A handsome sum for these handsome men”
It’s wonderfully fitting that the story opens with a quote from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Haunted Palace,” from which the film gets it title. Poe’s poem, about a king worried evil forces are threatening him, can be seen as symbolic of a dying empire— or, here, the Wild West. In the film, we can connect these ideas from Poe’s poem with the concept of American patriarchy when the witches face off against the cowboys, particularly once the history of Maria (Melora Walters) becomes clear.
The Pale Door does try to subvert conventions and tropes of the Western, embodying the spirit of a changing era represented in “The Haunted Palace” by Poe. However, it doesn’t quite do its job, or at least not to the point where it follows through on themes the screenplay seems to set out for itself. There’s a moment where Brenda (Tina Parker) gets burned at the stake that works fine on a basic level, yet there’s a dichotomy at work between the witches— who are getting back at one group of men for the evils done to them by other men— and the cowboys that feels betrayed by the witches burning another woman to death. Why not possess her or something? Make her a witch? We could look at it in the light that Brenda was part of a male gang, so the witches considered her just another arm of the patriarchy. Either way you cut it the compelling themes in the screenplay never fully get to where it feels they’re headed.
Similarly, there are subverted tropes in the film while there’s also a little unfortunate adherence to a stereotypical Hollywood view of the Wild West that comes at the expense of marginalised characters. Lester (Stan Shaw) is a great character. His being a large part of the story acknowledges the Civil War and American slavery. Not only that, the Western as a genre, on film and literature, has nearly 100% ignored the fact that some of the first cowboys were Black, and there were many Black cowboys throughout the Wild West era. U.S. cinema has very rarely depicted Black cowboys, so it’s nice to see in The Pale Door.
Sadly the inclusion of a freed slave cowboy character is somewhat negated by the presence of a non-verbal Indigenous character, of course named Chief (James Whitecloud), as per the credits. The Silent Indian is an old, troubling stereotype of Native Americans as inherently stoic and silent, used in plenty of American movies throughout the 20th century. It’s become a metaphor— ‘as silent as an Indian’— that’s appeared in novels like Jane Eyre. Native Americans have been negatively portrayed in Westerns since the invention of the genre, so in a film that appears to want to challenge genre conventions it’s unfortunate to see an Indigenous character literally silenced, basically used as horror movie fodder for the witches to kill.
Though there are missed chances and unfortunate missteps in The Pale Door, there are also moments that do attack the Western genre’s conventions and tropes with vigour. One of the most important to me is Jake’s struggle with resisting the heteronormative cowboy way of life. He can’t bring himself to pull the trigger of his gun and kill somebody, setting him apart from the outlaw killers in the Dalton gang. By Wild West standards he’s “yellow,” code for not manly. Much more intriguing are two passing references to Jake’s sexuality. When he and Maria talk alone he mentions that none of the women are his type, vaguely insinuating he doesn’t like women. Jake confirms his homosexuality when he later rages at Maria, questioning whether she’ll offer him “boys” in exchange for his untainted soul. The story concludes as if the conventions of the Western— specifically its need for a cowboy who shoots people and has sex with women, the traditional Western outlaw cowboy image— will not allow Jake to survive. Jake acts as a queer sacrifice in order to ensure his brother Duncan lives to return to a heteronormative life at home with a wife, kids, and a white picket fence.
If The Pale Door does one thing really well it’s in how the film explores American witchcraft and misogyny, spanning from the late 17th century when Maria was burned at the stake right up to the story’s present day setting in the late 1800s. The opening credits introduce Puritan minister Cotton Mather— before he shows up briefly in a flashback played by James Landry Hébert— along with his 1693 text Wonders of the Invisible World. Mather played a prominent role in the Salem witch trials, which the fictionalised version touches on momentarily. He and Maria’s piece of the plot harks back to more from the era of American Puritanism.
A double connection, apart from Mather, to Puritanism is the captive girl Pearl (Natasha Bassett), whom we find out is Maria’s child born on the day of her mother’s execution. Maria’s predicament, though more violent, feels like an echo of Hester Prynne‘s predicament in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. She’s condemned by Puritanism, like Hester. Her child’s name is Pearl, like Hester. Maria’s a horror version of Hawthorne’s Hester with just as much strength and a hell of a lot more spite.
The cowboys aren’t free of criticism, even if they technically saved Pearl during their ill-fated train robbery, albeit not on purpose. Although Duncan refuses to sell Pearl to somebody else we see typical Wild West misogyny from Dodd (Bill Sage), whose attitude towards women is one that falls in line with the emergence of Western capitalism. He sees women as livestock, to be consumed or sold. He baulks at not selling the girl, and when Jake insists she has a name he says: “That‘s the problem— you name ‘em, you start to get attached to them.” Later in the film, Dodd gets a redemptive moment where we’re supposed to see him as a man with emotions under a rough exterior, but his thoughts on women have already marked him as a misogynist right at home in the Old Patriarchal West.
The Pale Door definitely misses the mark more often than not, which is a shame. There are many genuinely exciting things buried in the screenplay. Ultimately it’s a confusing mix of things. The story never goes solidly in one direction, feeling too spread out between trying to be a Western and trying to be a horror to be effective. It all doesn’t come together well enough to be a great horror Western. The ending still confuses me. Not because I don’t know what happened, it’s that I’m not entirely sure what the point was in how it ended.
Witches are a powerful way to confront misogyny. The horror Western combination could’ve been the right vessel to really tackle such a heavy issue. I know Koontz was probably, above all else, simply trying to tell an exciting, crazy story and maybe neither he nor his co-writers were thinking solely about telling a story to tear down the patriarchy. My problem is that those concepts are there, especially when the film connects itself so directly to Cotton Mather’s legacy. The ideas are sitting below the surface waiting to emerge, only barely poking their heads above ground. The Pale Door isn’t a total waste. It just could’ve been so much more powerful.