It might be strange to say, but I’m actually disappointed that this movie wasn’t as bad as I thought it could be. When Nicolas Cage isn’t giving a good performance a la “Leaving Las Vegas,” he’s giving a hilariously bad one a la “The Wicker Man.” So when I saw the trailers for “Pay the Ghost” showing the Cage in a frenzy trying to find his son after he’d been taken by spirits, I thought either way I’d be in for a treat: a scary start to the Halloween season, or an unintentional comedy to shelve next to “Troll 2” or “Birdemic.” Sadly, neither was the case. “Pay the Ghost” is an absolutely middle-of-the-road and dull pile of mediocrity.
Nicolas Cage stars as Mike Lawford, a professor living in New York City with his wife, Kristen (Sarah Wayne Callies) and son, Charlie. Mike is a bit of a workaholic, much to Kristen’s chagrin, and regrettably can’t spend enough time with Charlie, who is starting to see strange things outside his window. Mike earns his tenure, and tells his wife “Everything is going to get better now,” so naturally from there things start to get worse. In an attempt to get some bonding time in on Halloween night, Mike takes Charlie to a local carnival, where Charlie’s strange visions continue. While they wait for ice cream, Charlie ominously asks his father, “Dad, can we pay the ghost?” before vanishing, leaving Mike to wonder in horror as to what happened.
We cut to a year later where we see Mike’s relationships with Kristen has strained, and he is tirelessly looking for his son – trying to connect the dots between children that go missing on Halloween. And from there, the film pretty much plays out like a poor man’s “Insidious.” There are a few jump scares involving windows; at one point the ghoul nonchalantly appears behind Mike without his noticing (a scene that worked like gangbusters in “Insidious,” but was more funny than anything here); there’s arguing and reconciling between the parents; they bring in a medium to explain what the hell is going on, and the climax is a father entering a foggy spirit world to find his lost child. Seriously, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like director Uli Edel took James Wan’s filmography as the textbook standard for horror movies and didn’t think to add anything else. As a result, we have a movie where every single scare is predictable and cliche – where gasps are replaced with eye rolls.
To be fair, there was a seedling of an interesting idea in the form of the celtic New York immigrant folklore surrounding the movie’s monster. However, it wasn’t watered with enough scenes and details to have it grow to fruition – it felt like an arbitrary backstory more than a bit of unique flavor. There was also something catchy about the titular phrase that seemed to stick out whenever it was uttered or seen. The saying “pay the ghost” had an eerie catchphrase quality to it, something that could have potentially gone on to be an endlessly quoted Halloween staple had the movie been in any way impacting. Maybe these two points were much more fleshed out in the original novel by Tim Lebbon, but if they were, then they definitely lost any weight they had in the translation to the silver screen.
And how does the movie actually look on said silver screen? Well, not good. I know it’s a horror movie set in Halloween-time New York City, but the movie always looks grey and washed out. Maybe it was to highlight the dreariness of Mike losing a child and questioning his parenting skills (the message “A father should protect his son” is re-iterated multiple times throughout the film in the least nuanced ways possible), but the dull visuals only seemed to highlight how much the movie as a whole couldn’t grab my attention. The cinematography wasn’t great either, with certain scenes looking like they hired the same jackass who wobbled the camera all over the place throughout the “Hunger Games” movies. I mean for god’s sake, shaky cam works when Nicolas Cage is frantically running away from something, yeah, but scenes where he’s just laying in bed with his wife shouldn’t look like it was filmed by Michael J. Fox after one too many cups of coffee.
The performances weren’t anything to write home about either. Being a fan of “The Walking Dead,” I was happy to see Sarah Wayne Callies in a lead role, but I was a bit sad to see that her performance here was the same as what she did in “The Walking Dead.” She always switches between distant and berating wife, to grounded maternal support, to being on the verge of emotional breakdown from everything she’s experienced. Don’t get me wrong, she does her job well, but I hope this isn’t a sign of her being typecast.
I almost don’t even want to talk about Jack Fulton as Charlie. I know, kid actors are hardly ever good, but this kid was bad. I find it inexcusable to say the lines “I love you, Dad,” and “I saw something at my window,” with the exact same tone. Apparently to Fulton, love and fear are the same emotion.
And as for Cage? This might just be his most forgettable role. There are a few moments when he gets to go full “Wicker Man” and shout Charlie’s name or get feisty with police, but for the most part it’s a very reserved performance. Every minute of the movie, he looks and acts exhausted and bored. Cage has experience with playing a father figure, so he could have done good things with this role, but all he ended up doing was dish out the bare minimum and collect a paycheck.
Overall, “Pay the Ghost” isn’t terrible, but it isn’t very good either, and that may be the most damning thing to say about it. Good or bad, horror movies are supposed to be fun or disturbing, but this 90-minute slog is neither. Skip it and wait for more of this year’s Halloween lineup to hit theaters. Despite what the title tells you, this ghost isn’t worth paying.