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‘The Pale Door’ Review: Western witches left wanting

A better title might have been ‘From Dusk Til Dumb.’

These outlaws look ready to shoot some witches.
(Image: © RLJE/Shudder)

Our Verdict

A lack of inventiveness in its execution that leaves 'The Pale Door' wanting.

For

  • 💀Solid acting across the board.
  • 💀Decent creature make-up.

Against

  • 💀Sloppy cinematography and editing.
  • 💀Overwrought dialogue.
  • 💀Women only have enough personality for one trait each.

The Pale Door opens with a quote from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Haunting Place,” highlighting the title’s literary allusion and firmly cementing the idea that this film was at least in part inspired by the work of one of horror’s most infamous scribes. That is such a thoroughly misleading sentiment that, even if intended to be true, flies directly in the face of what is actually portrayed. What we get instead is a very, very blatant reinterpretation of the basic plot beats of From Dusk Til Dawn, only without Quentin Tarantino’s snappy writing or Robert Rodriguez’s flair for spectacle. And though being derivative is not in and of itself a problem, particularly in low-budget genre films, it’s the lack of inventiveness in its execution that leaves The Pale Door wanting.

In the American West of the late 1800s, teenager Jake (Devin Druid) tries to live up to his older brother Duncan’s (Zachary Knighton) legacy as a gang leader years after raiders killed their parents and left them homeless. Duncan is hesitant to bring his brother into the criminal fold, even though his escapades are what put food on the table. Even so, Duncan reluctantly agrees to bring Jake along on the late-night train raid that promises a massive payday for the entire crew. However, the raid leaves Duncan fatally injured, and the only prize left to them is a young woman they found locked in a wooden chest. The woman, Pearl (Natasha Bassett), promises them that she can bring the gang to her hometown for rest, reward, and medical treatment.

Based on the film’s marketing, it’s not exactly a spoiler to say that The Pale Door takes a hard turn from Western to horror at about the halfway point, but that’s not where the similarities to From Dusk Til Dawn end. Though the town brothel is supposedly populated by a coven of witches (led by Melora Walters as Maria), functionally those witches transform into grotesque monstrosities that could equally be interpretive of demons or vampires, and it certainly doesn’t help that The Pale Door’s screenplay doesn’t know how to portray women as anything more than vaguely sinister.

Witchcraft does play a role in some last-act shenanigans that trap the last surviving members of the gang, but it still takes a backseat to characters extensively monologuing in attempts to retroactively inject pathos and significance into their story. This isn’t to say the acting itself is bad. Bill Sage and Stan Shaw in particular are putting in great work that complicates the gang members they are charged with playing. But it’s very hard to overcome dialogue that is so long-winded and serves only to break up thinly-connected fright gags, because those moments don’t feel like added depth, but instead a distraction from how cheap and perfunctory the horror elements feel.

Conceptually, there isn’t much wrong with how The Pale Door leans into its scares and how it heightens them throughout the narrative, but the framing is so flat and the staging so static that it feels like the pilot for a TV show that hasn’t found its stylistic voice yet. The editing certainly doesn’t help matters. Action-heavy scenes have an unfortunate tendency to lose all sense of geography, but instead of feeling frantic and impactful, you’re left wondering where exactly off-screen characters are aiming their guns when the juxtaposition of shots makes it look like they’re pointing at each other.

If this review comes across as harsh, it’s only because The Pale Door clearly has the framework for a solid action-horror romp. The resolution of Jake’s and Duncan’s arcs is emotionally weighty and serves as a solid bookend to the horrible circumstances that led them to this climax, and the ideas the film is cribbing from From Dusk Til Dawn are a solid foundation for building emotional resonance. Unfortunately, that resonance is tempered by overwrought writing that overestimates its own gravitas, and the horror setpieces are passably staged but are almost completely uninspired. There’s enough good here that The Pale Door doesn’t feel like a waste of time, but it isn’t a strong enough derivation from its inspiration where you’d ever want to watch this instead.

The Pale Door is distributed by RLJE Films and Shudder and will be available in theaters, on demand, and on digital on August 21, 2020.