My brief notes on The Pale Door
There’s already been a Wild West-set prequel to From Dusk Till Dawn, which makes this standard horror/Western mash-up feel a tad familiar. Again, we have a first half riffing on old-timey cowboy conventions as the famous Dalton Gang (none of the historical Daltons feature – maybe this bunch bought up the franchise after the Daltons’ last ride?) pull off a train robbery that does not go to plan. Instead of gold, a surprisingly large band of Pinkerton detectives are escorting a trunk containing a frail young woman, Pearl (Natasha Bassett). The second half fords a genre river and hits Potemkin Township, where the band are assailed not by vampires or werewolves or zombies (all have featured in horror-westerns) but witches.
In a flashback, Cotton Mather (James Landry Hébert) is responsible for hunting down Maria (Melora Waters), last of the Salem beldames, and burning her in the street (NB: in America, witches were hanged, not burned – that historical inaccuracy ship sailed a long time ago). Two hundred years later, Potemkin (like the town in the horror-western TV movie Black Noon) has been taken over by Salem witches, who appear either as dance hall hookers in corsets, alarmingly long-nosed hags out of Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches or still-charred-from-burning crawl-on-the-ceiling-like-in-Exorcist-III female fiends.
It’s a counterpoint to The Recknoning, which goes for the more true-to-history concept that witch-hunting was a cruel sham, but – again – the wicked witch is so engrained in horror it’s too late to carp that even films as lightweight as Hocus Pocus horribly compound a historical injustice. Besides, director Aaron B. Koontz (Camera Obscura), who also co-wrote with Cameron Burns and Keith Lansdale, is more cross-genre larking than assessing the misogyny of the underlying mythology. Zachary Knighton and Devin Druid get the leads as contrasting brothers, whose backstory could as easily fit the James Boys (missing in horror since Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter) as any Daltons we’ve heard of; they tend to get upstaged by welcome familiar faces Stan Shaw, Bill Sage and Pat Healy, who don’t have as much soap opera stuff and just play outlaw dress-up while fighting off horror hags.
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