"A horror drama about missing children that may not be worth the pay.”
Nicolas Cage is investigating the mysterious disappearance of his son in Uli Edel’s Pay the Ghost. Based on a novella by Tim Lebbon, this horror film incorporates Celtic mythology into a standard missing-child drama but which ultimately ends up as a ghostly addition to the actor’s already dwindling resume.
Mike Lawford (Cage) is an English teacher whose literary interest composes mainly of myths and horrors, something which delights his students that they clap their hands at the end of his lectures. He is hard at work trying to earn tenure at an unnamed New York University, making him a distant husband and dad to his wife, Kristen (Sarah Wayne Callies), and their son, Charlie (Jack Fulton). On Halloween, he is finally granted with tenure, and arriving late at home for trick-or-treating, he makes up to his son by taking him to a late-night street carnival in Greenwich Village. Meanwhile, Charlie has been recently seeing strange apparitions which he sketches into creepy drawings. On this Halloween night, he observes them blending in the street parade and after asking his dad “Can we pay the ghost?” he suddenly vanishes into thin air.
One year passes by and Charlie is still missing. His disappearance estranged Mike and Kristen. But Mike never loses hope and he soon discovers that children are evaporating across New York City on Halloween. With the holiday coming again, Mike begins having supernatural visions like seeing Charlie inside a bus, hearing voices, and noticing buzzards hovering over the city. And when he discovers countless graffiti of “pay the ghost” written on a homeless encampment, Mike realizes that he is finally closer to uniting with his son again.
Pay the Ghost is a very predictable, formulaic and uninventive family horror drama. It follows a simplistic and familiar plot about parents desperately looking for their child who inexplicably went missing. Its mysteries are not surprising and how they unravel is even more obvious. The film begins with a strange prologue set in the 17th century when three children hiding in a basement of a farmhouse were caught. Fast forward to the present and Mike’s only child mysteriously vanishes on Halloween. What happens next is a repetitive and humdrum quest for clues and coincidental statements from various people.
The movie has several lapses in its logic. For one, it is a big wonder that Mike is the first person to discover the disappearance of children in New York every Halloween for the last 300 years. When the police forces argue that they have been doggedly working on the case and several related others, shouldn't they have spotted the trend by then? Mike’s amateurish investigation uncovers a connection between a Celtic folktale and the disappearances. It is actually an interesting premise but the screenplay is not able to make it solid and convincing. So in the end, the ultimate explanation lacks logic and fails to clearly shed light about anything.
The film is also low in energy, enthusiasm and suspense. It is lazy, taking sweet time for things to get going. So when the climax hits, there is no surge of emotion or fright. Except for some short jumpy moments, it is never scary at all. As unbelievable as its premise is its production set. New York is unrecognizable, the university is old grotesque, and Mike’s house is too grand for an academician. Perhaps, the flick’s biggest shortcoming is its poor characterization. The figures never really developed as they are too busy solving mysteries. In the end, they are too impersonal to root for.
Cage is an adept character actor. He has always shown commitment, professionalism and immense talent in his movies. In this film, he delivers the intensity of a dad anxiously looking for his missing son but his character is too thinly-drawn that not even his languid voice or wide-eyed wonderment makes it less tiresome.
Being neither inventive nor convincing and with nothing new to offer, Pay the Ghost is another Cage disaster. The actor is as talented as always but he needs better material to remind as how good he was once.
Production companies: Voltage Films, Midnight Kitchen, Rodkos Prodductions, Interpol+ Studios
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Veronica Ferres, Lyriq Bent, Lauren Beatty, Kalie Hunter, Jack Fulton, Stephen McHattie
Director: Uli Edel
Screenwriter: Dan Kay
Producers: Nicolas Chartier, Craig J. Flores, Ian Levy, Patrick Newall
Executive producers: Dmitry Roshchenko, Dennis Berardi, Cybill Lui, Frank Buchs
Director of photography: Sharone Meir
Production designer: Rupert Lazarus
Costume designer: Christopher Hargadon
Music: Joseph Loduca
Editor: Jeff McEvoy