By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Horror filmmaker Aaron B. Koontz recalls as a child having a coloring book filled with forest animals but instead of using the greens and browns and other colors of the woods and staying inside the lines, he instead would transport the animals in to scenes in space or into the Hobbit world of J.R.R. Tolkien, or even the crackling fires of Hell—the latter of which would irritate his mother, to say the least.
Koontz’s active—or perhaps overactive—imagination has never diminished from those early days. In his films, thus far, he has delved deeply into the macabre, to the delight of his growing legion of fans. Audiences may know him best for his 2017 psychological horror film “Camera Obscura,” in which a war photographer sees impending deaths in his photos, for Universal, and his subsequent work on the horror-comedy anthology “Scare Package,” which will be available on Video On Demand, Digital HD, DVD and Blu-ray on Oct. 20.
The founder and CEO of Austin-Texas-based Paper Street Pictures, he and his team are grinding out a roster of horror films, including an upcoming horror comedy and a psychological thriller about a serial killer.
Arriving in theaters, On Demand and Digital Friday Aug. 21, is Koontz’s independently financed “The Pale Door,” a wild horror mashup involving a gang of 1890s-era cowboy outlaws and a coven of vengeful witches.
In it, a gang of mostly men (but also a very formidable woman) are plotting to stop a train to relieve it of its precious cargo. Instead of finding treasure onboard, the Dalton gang, headed by brothers Duncan and Jake, discover a young woman being held captive in a chest. She promises them wealth if they can get her to her home nearby. She takes them on what seems to be an endless journey into the middle of nowhere but when they arrive in what appears to be an abandoned town, it turns out to have an open brothel. The residents are no ordinary ladies of the night, however, and so when the men are taken upstairs one by one of the ladies, they are in for a rude and deadly surprise. Turns out, the cowboy/outlaws’ arrival was planned by the witches, who have a connection to the Salem witch trials, who need fresh blood to survive. The ladies are especially juiced up over one particular outlaw, who just so happens to be a virgin. Can brotherly love be more powerful than witchcraft?
Though set at the turn of the 20th century, “The Pale Door” contains modern-day relevance, with examples of stubborn men underestimating the power and fortitude of women, and more specifically, and a deeper theme about how hate begets hate and the powerful connection the blood and family. But those themes don’t take away from mayhem and bloodshed that horror fans will expect. There is plenty of that—rain buckets full.
The film stars Pat Healy (“American Woman”), David Druid (Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why”), Zachary Knighton (ABC’s “Happy Endings”), in a diverse cast that was meant to reflect the composition of cowboy gangs of that period.
While weather problems robbed the production of a few days of filming in Oklahoma, Koontz says in an interview by phone that those setbacks forced him and his cast and crew to think creatively, and he is pleased with the results. The undefinable eerie score by musician/composer Alex Cuervo (who also scored Koontz’s “Scare Package”) is also notable, and not just because he uses a human femur as a musical instrument but because it lends the right spooky mood through the film.
Q: Tell me about your inspiration for this. It’s unusual to see a Western with witches?
Aaron B. Koontz: That was part of the plan. We wanted to do something we haven’t seen a lot of. At Paper Street Pictures, we try to do a lot of genre mashups. These were two scripts that kind of came together in a roundabout way. We had written a very violent script about a group of cowboys that have to hole up in this ghost town. Once they got there, we liked the characters but we didn’t like where (the plot) was going. It didn’t feel where we wanted it to be as filmmakers. So, we put it on the shelf.
Separately, I was writing this Salem witch-trial kind of movie set in the 1600s. I was really fascinated by that time period and how awful it was. At the same time, I was asked to pitch a witch movie to Universal following the success of Robert Eggers’ “The Witch.” So, I had this idea of taking that western that really wasn’t working on its own and what if we had them run into a brothel of witches. I thought that could be a lot of fun. It was a unique concept: cowboys and witches. Maybe there’s something to that. They laughed at me and asked why cowboys; they just want normal witches. I don’t know what a “normal” witch is, but that’s OK.
So, I had that and I was on a screenwriting panel with (science-fiction author) Joe Lansdale, which was such an honor because he’s such an amazing writer. I told him the story about pitching the movie (to Universal), and he turned to me during the panel in front of the crowd and said, “I think you should make that.” We went out for dinner that night and I said, “Why don’t we make it together?” His son (Keith Lansdale) came on board as a full writer, and Joe gave me notes throughout the process, and we created “The Pale Door.”
Q: As the producer, as well as the writer/director, do you feel you have more freedom to tell the stories the way you want to tell them because you have your own production company?
Koontz: Definitely. This was completely independently financed. The first film we made with Universal, which was a tough experience—not because of Universal, but for a variety of reasons. I was a first-time filmmaker, and felt I could have done better. I always want to learn so I ask myself what I can learn from mistakes. I learned from that film that sometimes you have to push back on things and trust my gut. Things that I wanted to do. So, with “The Pale Door,” we figured why not finance this independently because we can. And we were very lucky to be able to do that.
We had a couple of setbacks. We shot this in Oklahoma during tornado season. There were Category Five tornadoes. We had to do it during that particular timeframe; we didn’t have a choice. We lost a couple of days of shooting to the weather because of tornadoes and hail and flooding. It was completely crazy. So, we really had to hurry. First, it’s a period piece with wolves and horses and ravens, and stunts, and the weather elements knocked a couple of days off our shoot so we had to reconfigure.
I had to be a little more creative than I even wanted to and couldn’t spend the time in some areas. But, other than that, it allowed us to make a weird kind of movie that we wanted to make. It’s witches and cowboys, but it’s also a sentimental film. There’s a lot that we’re trying to say about violence creating more violence and hate leading to more hate. We didn’t want it to be this black-and-white story about just cowboys and witches. And we were allowed to massage that and make it happen, independently.
Q: How long was the shoot?
Koontz: About 20 days. We were supposed to be closer to 25 (days). We had a lot of night scenes and one night lightning struck our generator. So, we had to improvise a lot for what that was. But I had a great crew and my cast was just so amazing. They could role with the punches. Like, when I asked them to improvise a scene differently (from the script). Let’s block this scene differently because we had to. Everyone was willing to get down and dirty and do it.
Q: The film opens with this quote from Edgar Allan Poe about the pale door. Is Poe one of your personal favorites? And the quote is so appropriate for what’s to come in the film. Was it planned ahead of time or did you come across it later after you finished?
Koontz: The film was actually untitled for the longest time. I was trying to find inspiration for what the title would be. I do love Poe. I have a book of poems that I go to whenever I need to. I’ll go sit down and read them. It’s very inspirational stuff. He’s just one of those magical people. I read this one poem, “The Haunted Palace,” that is one of my favorites. And I went back and read it and thought it was a wonderful parallel—the whole poem, really. It talks about this town, what’s happened, and hiding behind the evil, and I thought this poem, thematically, is really wonderful.
I thought about calling the movie “The Haunted Palace.” And then I read that line, “Through the pale door a hideous throng rush out forever, and laugh—but smile no more.” I thought it was perfect. It had a Western kind of hue to it. It was just one of those moments that I didn’t even question it. And then to open the film with the quote was great. So, it wasn’t intended from the origin, but once I found it, I was really glad that I did.
Q: You definitely have some nods to classic Westerns, particular spaghetti westerns like “A Fistful of Dollars” with the close-ups and camera angles. What were some of your Westerns inspirations?
Koontz: I loved how classic Westerns exaggerated the violence, especially the Sergio Leoni films. Like, how the blood spatter would be higher and it was really loud when the guns went off. I really like the modern remake of “3:10 to Yuma.” “The Wild Bunch” and “Unforgiven,” for sure. Another one that people don’t talk about as much—(Sam) Peckinpah’s “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.” I like the ones that were a little off-kilter and dealt with different themes and topics. That really excited me. Then, I like “Tombstone,” and (the 2008 Western comedy) “The Good, The Bad, The Weird,” from Kim Jee-woon. I went back and looked at all of those, but we wanted take some of the pastiche aspects of those (classic Westerns) and modernize it.
When I was going through and researching all the Westerns and deciding which way to shape this, I noticed the gangs were distinctly white people most of the time. When I did research (on the Old West), I realized there’s a lot more to it than that. A lot of these gangs were diverse. They had women. They had people who were former slaves and Native Americans. So, I really wanted to push having a more diverse gang to better reflect what was actually going on at the time. (SPOILER ALERT) Even making Jake, the younger member of the gang, a gay individual, was something I was excited to explore, because I wanted (that characteristic) to be subtly there. What would that be like? It also contributes to his innocence at that time. Men were getting married at that time at age 15, so it would have been odd for him to be a virgin. So, given that he is gay (and would likely be shunned or worse because of it), it kind of plays into the character’s lack of sexual experience.
It was good to do this and better reflect what the time period was and put a different spin on what the gangs in the west used to be and what audiences are typically used to seeing.
Q: Your films generally have a horror component. Do you think you’ll continue to remain in the horror genre or explore other types of films?
Koontz: I love genre films, in particular. So, I think I always will make some type of genre film. It may not always specifically be horror. I’ll never stop making horror films but I might not exclusively make horror films. We have a sci-fi film we’re working on now. I have a coming-of-age story that’s coming together as well. I have one about a serial killer that’s not quite horror but more in the “Gone Girl” world. It’s kind of a thriller.
I grew up not being allowed to watch horror films so it kind of became this forbidden fruit that I gravitated toward, much to my mother’s chagrin. Now, I really like playing in this space. What excites me about the horror genre is the idea of mixing genres.
Q: What do you anticipate in terms of getting back to work after the pandemic is under control?
Koontz: My company is producing a number of films. There are two movies we’re going to make at the end of this year. One is actually going into production next month but I’m just a producer on it, not a director. I can’t give too many details just yet. They’re both in the horror/thriller space. I had wanted to take some time off anyway after (making “The Pale Door”) and previously “Scare Package,” which were back-to-back, and just do some producing for other people. But I would say about a year from now I’m going to push forward this film called “Dream Machine,” a sort of Cronenberg-esque sci-fi film.
Q: “The Pale Door” has an eclectic score. What drove your choice of music for the film?
Koontz: I would say it’s music nobody’s ever heard because we actually created instruments for the film. Alex Cuervo is the composer. He used no modern instruments. It was actually a femur bone that he’s blowing into to make the horn sounds. The clacking is him clacking antlers together. We strung a violin with barbed wire and sticks. Our cello was made of a shipping box. Our guitar was made of tin. We really challenged ourselves.
Once Covid happened, everything shut down right as we were getting around to our score. So, we decided to really go after these unusual sounds. The piano is the only modern instrument—and the one we used was over 200 years old. Otherwise, everything else is all-organic and these weird sounds were created. I think Alex did a wonderful job on that. So, I’m really proud of the score. It sounds weird because it is weird. It’s never been done before. There’s a little Ennio Morricone pastiche moments in there, but it’s more like the weirder Morricone stuff like “The Mission.” And there’s a little inspiration from Hans Zimmer, but we really made it our own.