Synopsis: After a train robbery goes bad, two brothers leading a gang of cowboys must survive the night in a ghost town inhabited by a coven of witches.
Stars: Devin Druid, Zachary Knighton, Melora Walters, Bill Sage, Pat Healy, Stan Shaw, Natasha Bassett, Noah Segan, Tina Parker
Director: Aaron B. Koontz
TMMM Score: (2/10)
Review: When I was young, the phrase “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” always kind of creeped me out and definitely made me think twice anytime I got near a pig or a handbag. What’s more, it never totally made sense to me until I had some real world uses for it that it would apply to. Once, I had a birthday cake made and when I went to pick it up I found that it was decorated wrong. When I pointed it out, the baker said they’d be happy to scrape off the decoration and put something new on top – but “ you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” The cake was a bust but a friend came through in a pinch with a replacement.
In movies, every now and then you get a silk purse of a synopsis but a sow’s ear of a film. Such is the case with the indie horror Western The Pale Door. Here was one that had me all in based solely on the tagline that mentioned witches and cowboys…um, sold! The poster looked ominously freaky, it had some interesting character actors involved and I was reasonably comforted that based on the previous credits of some of the filmmakers there was serious potential. All signs pointed to the kind of selection that would have me clamoring into a theater had it been available at a film festival as a midnight selection.
Nope. Sow’s ear.
The story goes like this. Years ago two brothers were orphaned on a dark night but eventually went in different directions, taking separate paths forward in life. One brother, Duncan (Zachary Knighton), becomes an outlaw, a member of a gang of ne’er-do-wells that get by thieving from town to town. His kid brother Jacob (Devin Druid) opts for a more respectable life working for a local saloon and keeping his money safe and sound, planning for the day when he can secure his future. When Duncan reappears and announces his intent to rob a train filled with gold, Jacob suddenly takes an interest in his older brother’s business and joins him and his crew for a fateful heist that doesn’t bring them to quite the bounty they had anticipated.
Instead of the train carrying money, they find it’s transporting a woman (Natasha Bassett, Hail, Caesar!) in a locked and guarded box who, when eventually freed, wants to repay their kindness by inviting them back to the brothel run by her friends that’s nearby and overseen by the mysterious Maria (Melora Walters, The Master). Starved for food, drink, and something more carnal, the posse is all too happy to accept the company of the lovely ladies of the evening…who have a nasty habit of turning into ghastly beasts when the doors are locked for the night. The rough and rowdy robbers must survive the darkness and protect Jacob, who the blood-hungry creates have their sights set on thanks to his pure and innocent spirit.
Giving the credit where it’s certainly the most due, the screenplay from Keith Lansdale, Cameron Burns, and director Aaron B. Koontz is quite clever at times and ranks high in the imagination factor. It’s not going into the Smithsonian for it’s witty dialogue or complex construct but there’s been thought put in on how to get from Point A to Point B and that’s enough to keep the lights on for at least the first half of the movie. Though it’s clearly cherry-picking the good stuff off of earlier adjacent movies like From Dusk Till Dawn and Near Dark, on paper at least it has the ring of a feature that would have worked quite well.
So…what’s the sow’s ear part you’re referring to, you say? Well…it’s one of the cheapest looking movies I’ve seen in all of 2020 and maybe in the last several years. A fine script is one thing but it can’t save filmmaking that is bargain basement throughout. Costumes look like they were plucked directly (or stolen outright) from an Old Time Western Photo Shop, sets are straight-up in some touristy Wild West town that was shuttered for filming, and the hysterical props that are used are filled with jarring displays like Wanted posters you’d see printed on booths at an amusement park. On top of all of that, the actual look of the movie gives the impression of a training video for a horseback riding camp. The old TV show Hey Dude created a more convincing Western vibe.
Performances certainly don’t help things along either. While Druid is a respectable, if mealy-mouthed, lead, he tends to disappear as the movie progresses…vanishing almost completely behind bigger performances just as he’s supposed to come to the forefront. That’s partly Koontz’s fault for allowing some of the supporting players (which from the looks of past credits appear to be friends) to overact to an astonishing degree. As the lone female bandit, Tina Parker does an amusing about-face from her tightly wound role in the excellent To the Stars released earlier this summer but Pat Healy (The Innkeepers) and especially Noah Segan (Knives Out) have the munchies for the scenery throughout. Only Walters seems to gather what she’s gotten herself into and decides to go all out…and more’s the better for it.
A disappointment through and through, this is one door that need not be opened or even gazed upon with curiosity. What a bummer this one was, mostly because I had some true high hopes for it. It just goes to show that a tagline alone cannot (and should not) be the only thing that entices you into a film. The script for this one might not be quite the silk purse that we discussed earlier but it’s at least a high-density cotton that stands up to inspection if you squint a bit. The Pale Door itself needs a padlock, though.