Sometimes, to understand the great American horror story, you need to go back to the source. Aaron B. Koontz’s The Pale Door begins with a quote from Edgar Allen Poe (which supplies the origin of the film’s title), and with that most familiar of the genre’s formative primal scenes: a little boy in bed, frightened by the noises and shadows of the night. The boy, Jake Dalton, is reassured by his older brother Duncan – but then, when they see their mother and father gunned down and their homestead burnt to the ground by a posse of armed men, it becomes clear that these events are unfolding not today, but some time back in the nineteenth century, perhaps even around the time when Poe was still actually writing.
Cut to some years later, and Jake (Devin Druid) is a young adult working hard in a saloon, hoping one day to be able to buy back the rebuilt farm of his parents – while Duncan (Zachary Knighton) has gone in the opposite direction, leading an outlaw gang of thieves and killers (played by Noah Segan, Stan Shaw, Bill Sage, Pat Healy, Tina Parker, James Whitecloud and Collin Place). With the gang suddenly a man down, Jake offers, against his brother’s will, to join them in a violent train robbery, although having never spilt blood, he is assigned to mind their horses. The contents of a well-guarded chest on board the train turn out to be something other than money, and after Duncan is gravely injured, the gang will end up seeking refuge in a nearby town, only to discover that the women in the local brothel – led by Maria (Melora Walters) and her daughter Pearl (Natasha Bassett) – are in fact a coven of shape-shifting witches with sinister designs on Jake.
“The past is the past,” Duncan tells Jake, “just leave it that way.” Yet Koontz’s film keeps poking at the past, and seeing what its contradictions and conflicts can teach us about the present. To pass through The Pale Door is to enter the weird west, where the more unsettling aspects of American history are mixed up with genre elements. For much as Grant Harvey’s sequel/prequel Ginger Snaps: The Beginning traces the origins of John Fawcett’s contemporary 2000 werewolf film back to Canada’s pioneering days, much as Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015) reimagines John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) in the wintry Wyoming of 1877, and much as S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk (2015) displaces the cannibal savagery of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977) to the frontier lands of the 1890s, similarly The Pale Door follows – or should that be anticipates? – the narrative pattern found in Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), with its fugitive criminals stumbling at the film’s halfway point into a supernatural scenario. It is as though all these films, in situating their well-worn tropes in a pre-cinematic past, are laying the foundations both for the modern American horror film, and for the inherited anxieties of the twentieth and even twenty-first centuries.
As Duncan’s gang realises that they are up against irrational forces that they cannot defeat, in a ghost town whose improbable name (Potemkin) resonates with a (subsequent) history of oppression and resistance, we also see their own history being retold. For Koontz’s film does not just begin with a key scene from Jake and Duncan’s childhood, but then – in a series of stories and preternaturally-conveyed flashbacks – goes back even further in time, revealing both the unsavoury beginnings (in rapine and bloody murder) of the Dalton family fortune, and also the horrific origin story, set some two centuries prior, that saw local womenfolk made monsters by the Puritan males amongst them. Here the terrifying witches who haunt these rogues are merely seeking redress for the outrageous injustices that they suffered at the hands of similarly bad men, while the wholesome all-American idyll of the family home behind a white picket fence is shown to be built on atrocity.
While the effects used to realise the revenant women are weird and wonderful, there are times when the budget for The Pale Door does not quite match the film’s ambitions, with costumes looking precisely like costumes rather than worn-in clothes, and the ‘wild west’ here often seeming like little more than a film set. Perhaps this is a way of exposing the myth of the great American cowboy, and showing up the fantasy that underlies the principle of manifest destiny. Here everyone is just play-acting their entitlement to whatever they want – with a gun or a knife to back them up. There is an attempt, through the character of the Dalton brothers’ father figure – and their real father’s (qualified) freedman – Lester (Shaw), to show America’s history of slavery as unfinished business, but the one Native American character (Whitecloud) in the film is less well served. For while he is a welcome part of this motley state-of-the-nation crew, he is literally mute, and as excluded from the national conversation as his people typically have been.1 He is also, unfortunately, a classic ‘first to die’ figure. Yet it may be unfair to cavil about this in a film that is otherwise so deeply concerned with those who have been callously cast aside by the momentum of American history and forced to form their own countercultural family of the occult in the shadowy margins.
The Pale Door is full of tough guys who posture and preen, and think little of taking the lives of others for their own personal gain. Yet running through the film is a different ideology, embodied by Jake. For he stands apart from Duncan and the gang in being decent, merciful, self-sacrificing – and gay (“Don’t see that round these parts much”, as Maria comments). Jake’s desire to buy back the haven of domestic comfort that was taken from him as a boy will soon turn into a quest for a much broader variety of redemption, offering a different model of progress, and amends to those who have been historically wronged. Here good and evil are relative rather than absolute terms, and even the innocent must shoulder the burden of past sin. In today’s polarised, unequal, often violent America, filled as it is with many a “soiled soul”, you can see the influence of both Dalton brothers who, for all their differences, are bonded by the same legacy of blood.
Strap: Aaron B. Koontz’s witchy ‘weird western’ uncovers horror, sin and countercultural resistance in America’s history
© Anton Bitel
1 Koontz has informed me: “Chief was my homage to Will Sampson’s Chief from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and was played by his great nephew.” I missed this detail, and it makes good sense of the character’s muteness.