★★ out of ★★★★★
Directed by Aaron B. Koontz.
Witches are a tricky lot. Literally. Filled with deceit and deception. They conjur up horrible thoughts in your tiny little brain. They’re always on the hunt for a new (or renewed) sacrifice. Most importantly they travel in unrelenting satanic packs of malice. The Pale Door has more fiends than you can shake a stick at, but, unfortunately, doesn’t do a whole heck of a lot with this spooky pile of occult weirdos.
This recently released Shudder fare comes courtesy of horror shorts director Aaron B. Koontz and follows a couple of 1800s-era cowboy brothers who’ve unceremoniously left their family farm for bigger and more ghoulish things. Duncan (Zachary Knighton, the Hitcher and Cherry Falls) and his little brother Jake (Devin Druid) are forced to leave their family farm amidst an assault by an armed gang of hoodlums, but not before they burn the whole lot to ground and brutally assassinate the boy’s parents.
Years later Duncan (enthusiastically) and Jake (less-than-enthusiastically) find themselves tied to the hip with a group of rootin’-tootin’ robbers and miscreants. All we know is that they’re a gang and the love the fluid income from robbing trains — that and the fact the the brothers may/may not be on the same page when it comes to good ol’ fashioned thievery. The cowboy crew sets out for another big train score, but instead of the heaping pile of gold and hard cash they nab a trunk containing a young woman, Pearl (Natasha Bassett). Shots are fired, feelings are hurt, and the metaphorical train leaves the station. Or in this case, you can see the metaphorical witch-train pounding down the tracks from a mile a way.
With older brother Jake injured, Pearl convinces the entire crew of reprobates to head to her nearly by home for rest, relaxation, and unholy sacrament. Problem is her nearby home is actually a coven of the highest order of wicked witches. Sadly, we saw this one coming pert’ near a mile a way, but also rather predictably the remaining members of the outlaw crew head on over to witch-ville lickety split.
The evening unfolds in the dark with dark figures, dark angles, and dark witches. The witches are actually pitch black set on top of dark sets making the action, story, and cinematography almost unwatchable. Added to the murky mix are characters that constantly fall flat with faux emotional crisis. Koonz also opts for a handful of stories that are never fully exposed or explained. There’s an oblique reference to slavery and/or the darker side of manifest destiny, there’s a nod to young Jake’s possible homosexual tendencies, and even a smattering of philosophizing about the witch/woman’s place in the 1800s. While anyone of these might be interesting on their own, thrown together it’s a mish-mashed pile of exposition that’s both disconnected and uninteresting.
To be sure, there’s a good story here. The Pale Door is a great premise and it’s got a handful of interesting story threads, but this yarn is plumb clumsy in its execution. There’s some wonderful-looking practical effects, a scene or two of pretty gnarly imagery, and a glorious poster — but don’t be tricked by the witchy ways of the coven, a dash of gore doesn’t fully make a witch story click.
The Pale Door is probably Rated R and available for streaming on Shudder.