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Pay the Ghost

D: Uli Edel / 94m

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Lyriq Bent, Jack Fulton, Veronica Ferres, Susannah Hoffmann, Lauren Beatty, Stephen McHattie

It’s Halloween, and newly tenured professor Mike Lawford (Cage) arrives home just in time to take his young son Charlie (Fulton) to a nearby Halloween carnival. Charlie is a little nervous as the night before he saw something outside his bedroom window, and at the carnival he sees a large vulture circling overhead, though Mike doesn’t. When they queue up to get ice cream, Charlie asks his dad if they can “pay the ghost”, and in seconds he’s disappeared. Mike searches frantically for him but there’s no trace of Charlie, only the pirate hat he was wearing as part of his Halloween costume. The police are called, and the lead detective, Reynolds (Bent) assures Mike that these things usually resolve themselves within twenty-four hours.

A year later, with three days to go before Halloween, Mike and his wife Kristen (Callies) have separated, and Charlie is still missing. Mike pesters Detective Reynolds, accusing him of not trying hard enough, while also putting up flyers detailing Charlie’s disappearance. When he begins to hear Charlie’s voice, he initially doubts his senses, but when he sees him on a bus and chases after it, it leads him to an abandoned warehouse that’s become home to a group of vagrants. On the outside of the building the phrase “pay the ghost” has been painted. Mike asks if anyone knows what it means, and a blind man (McHattie) shows him a wall covered with the phrase; however he has little more to offer.

Mike tries to convince Kristen that Charlie might be trying to communicate with them from wherever he’s been taken. He discovers that a child who went missing on the Halloween before Charlie’s disappearance also said the same thing to her father. Kristen refuses to believe him until she has her own supernatural encounter. Together, Charlie’s parents begin to look into the number of child disappearances that have occurred on Halloween; a disturbing pattern emerges, one that leads them to believe that this has been happening for a very long time. They dig deeper, and find that the abductions are related to a tragedy that happened over three hundred years before.

Pay the Ghost - scene

For fans of Nicolas Cage, it’s been a rough few years since his lauded turn in Kick-Ass (2010). Since then, only Joe (2013) has shown audiences what Cage can do when he’s fully engaged with a project. Otherwise, the movies he’s chosen to star in have been so lacking in quality they could only have been taken on as a way of paying off his mortgage. Anyone who’s sat through the likes of Seeking Justice (2011), Rage (2014), and/or Left Behind (2014) will have wondered what’s happened to an actor who won an Oscar for one of the most powerful portrayals of an alcoholic ever committed to celluloid. With each new movie, his loyal fans must hope that this will be the one to change his dwindling fortunes and prove he still has what it takes.

Alas, Pay the Ghost isn’t the one. Here Cage doesn’t so much phone in his performance as fax it over an intermittent connection. Trying to maintain a semblance of commitment to the material, Cage goes through the motions with all the intensity of someone who can’t wait to move on to the next project. At one point, after Kristen has made it clear she blames Mike for losing Charlie, Cage is required to fall to the floor and begin crying. It should be an uncomfortable moment of parental grief, but instead it’s uncomfortable because Cage can’t sell the emotion (or any tears). In comparison with Callies, who at least makes an effort to be traumatised by Charlie’s disappearance, Cage sleepwalks through their scenes together, only showing any passion when called upon to share his growing suspicions about Charlie’s abduction.

To be fair to Cage, he isn’t helped by the material, a hodgepodge of supernatural thriller clichés stitched together by screenwriter Dan Gay and adapted from the novella by Tim Lebbon. Fans of the genre will have fun spotting the references to other, similar movies, while the makers of the Insidious franchise will have good cause to wonder if Edel and co. haven’t made an unofficial companion movie to that particular series (Hoffmann’s medium is certainly no match for Lin Shaye’s Elise Rainier). You know a movie hasn’t got a clue when the supernatural entity at the heart of everything is able to organise all kinds of mischief at the drop of a hat – including killing someone by spontaneous combustion – but fails to put Cage off his stride at any point (yes, he’s the hero, but really, shouldn’t he be put in danger at least once during the movie?).

Further incongruities occur throughout, with Bent’s credulous detective used to poor effect and removed from the movie once he experiences his own supernatural awakening. Fulton spends most of the movie in a pirate costume, and sporting an eye patch applied with black make up that makes him look like a reject from a KISS audition. The evil entity has evolved from a curse made centuries before but its modern day raison d’être is arbitrary and convenient at the same time, reinforcing the idea that the makers have adopted a kitchen sink approach to its behaviour (just why Charlie has been chosen is one of the many questions the movie fails to even ask let alone explain).

In charge of all this, Edel never shows he has a grip on the material, and several scenes seem under-rehearsed or sloppily staged. Even the de rigeuer scares are heavily signposted and too reminiscent of similar ones from the Insidious series, while the final showdown between Mike and the entity takes place on a gantry that’s surrounded by some of the worst visual effects seen for some time. It’s almost as if everyone concerned just wanted to do enough to get the movie made and then move on.

Rating: 3/10 – Cage has made few worse movies, but Pay the Ghost comes pretty close to being at the top of the list; derivative, uninspired, dull, laughable, ridiculous, awful – it’s all these things and more, and serves as yet another unfortunate nail in the coffin of Cage’s career.