The confounding career of Nicolas Cage has, at this point, surely been the focus of hundreds of graduate theses, attempting to explain away the pile of shockingly disastrous, straight-to-VOD films that he churns out every year, and reconcile with the fact that the man is still a superstar — despite the ubiquitous knowledge that he’s become a sort of scenery chewing ham. However, from time to time, the Oscar winner (a tag all of his movies still proudly tout) makes films like “Joe,” where he actually acts, in a movie with characters and complexities and depth. And, the truth is, with the right material Cage can still be interesting as a performer. Which makes just about every film of far lesser quality, all that more painful to watch.
Like, for instance, “Pay The Ghost,” a decidedly B-movie supernatural thriller that blatantly looks to capitalize on the coming Halloween season. Cage plays actor Nicolas Cage playing professor Mike Lawford who is characterized only by the fact that we feel we know Nic Cage: we are comfortable with him and not threatened by him, he is nice, and friendly, and a mostly good person. And that’s it. Though, to be honest, Cage does a decent enough job of trudging through the blunt and lifeless script by Dan Kay (based on the novel by Tim Lebbon), without ever truly selling it. A perfect companion for the film itself.
“Pay The Ghost” takes its time getting to the proceedings. Mike, an English professor at an unnamed, but very gothic university (where his students clap for him at the end of his lessons), has a good life with his wife Kristen (Sarah Wayne Callies) and their young son Charlie (Jack Fulton). Sure, he runs late for things, caught up in his work, but he loves his family and they love him. But when Mike shows up late again and misses trick-or-treating on Halloween, he must make it up to Charlie by taking him to the carnival down the block. The two have a super fun time just looking at all the costumes, until Charlie literally disappears right out of Mike’s hand.
Flash forward a year and Mike and Kristen are separated. Mike, still obsessed with Charlie’s disappearance, posts flyers every week, and won’t stop hounding the detective assigned to the case. But nothing has come of his efforts. Until, that is, Halloween finally comes back around. Suddenly Mike begins seeing things — Charlie on a bus, awkward CG vultures, vague darknesses, titular graffiti — that lead him to believe his son is still out there and that some supernatural powers and ancient celtic mythology may be in the mix. As the fated day approaches, Mike and Kristen — reunited by their love for their son and narrative convenience — learn they might have one last chance to save Charlie.
But from its opening, “Pay The Ghost” is devoid of energy. The rote nuclear family we are given is far from interesting, and the heavy-handed dread leading up to Charlie’s disappearance (hyped to ridiculous levels by Joseph LoCuca’s derivative score, which tries to wrench tension from everything) robs the moment of anything resembling emotion; though the scene itself is neither inventive or convincing. And, for the most part, the rest of the film follows suit.
Under the direction of TV vet Uli Edel, “Pay The Ghost” comes out feeling like, well, a TV movie. Nothing makes much sense. The ghosts never get scary. The action is awkward and packed with painful CG. And the climax manages to somehow be the most inane and dull moment of all. The cast does some passable work, but with the script they’ve been stuck with there isn’t much room to breathe, let alone create a character with any trace of depth.
Worse still is the late grasp at some sort of celtic mythology, that seems, not to have been a driving force in the narrative from the get go, but rather a lazy attempt to tie off the empty narrative strands by way of some sort of cohesive evil force. That the final “answers” lack logic and fail to explain just about anything, doesn’t much seem to concern the filmmakers, because it’s supernatural after all, and there’s a curse, and a witch, and movies with this stuff can maybe make some money around Halloween, right?
B-movies are of course always going to be B-movies. But many B-movies see their status as an opportunity to take a chance, to try something inventive or absurd. The main issue with “Pay The Ghost,” though, is that it does absolutely nothing new — let alone muster up a reason for its own existence. Every trope that Edel attempts feels plucked from some other, better film, where said trope is executed with truck loads more flair and originality. The highest compliment that can be made of the movie is that it is harmless: never laughably bad, never painful, just pure mediocrity, from start to finish. And that somehow, at some point, somebody was able to convince Academy Award Winner Nicolas Cage to be in it. [D]