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Can we all agree to chip in to support Nicolas Cage so he isn’t reduced to starring in an endless series of negligible B-movies? Case in point: Pay the Ghost, in which the Oscar-winning actor goes through the motions, this time in a derivative horror film that exploits Halloween so shamelessly it might as well be the holiday’s official sponsor.
Cage, once more simultaneously appearing charismatic and somnolent, plays university professor Mike who, for reasons convenient to the plot, specializes in teaching vintage horror fare on the order of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Neglectful of his wife Kristen (Sarah Wayne Callies, The Walking Dead) and young son Charlie (Jack Fulton) because of his obsessive attention to work, Mike finally succeeds in getting tenure, leading him to promise Kristen, “Everything’s going to be better now.”
It isn’t hard to guess that his rosy prediction won’t last very long, as Mike, wanting to make it up to his son for missing a pumpkin carving session, takes him to a Halloween carnival. Big mistake, since Charlie, after ominously uttering the phrase “pay the ghost,” vanishes into thin air.
Cue to a year later, with Kristen having left Mike whom she blames for their son’s disappearance and with Mike having manically devoted himself to solving the mystery which the cops have written off. But when Mike starts seeing visions of his son and of the titular phrase plastered on buildings, he manages to convince Kristen that supernatural doings are afoot.
It all leads to a Celtic legend revolving around a 17th century mother whose children were burned alive and who then was burnt at the stake as a “witch.” It seems that ever since the conflagration she has the power — at least for one day a year, on Halloween, naturally — to abduct children and transport them to her ghostly realm.
Director Uli Edel, whose past work ranges from truly awful (the Madonna vehicle Body of Evidence) to excellent (Last Exit to Brooklyn, the Oscar-nominated The Baader Meionhof Complex), strains very hard to invest the proceedings with creepy atmosphere via repeated shots of menacing vultures, swirling dark clouds on the horizon, and horrific figures popping up like jacks-in-the-box. It might have worked if the story was less cartoonish and more original but, much like the cheap jump scares that are frequently resorted to, the results are less scary than unintentionally comic.
Not that the film is entirely without intended humor, such as when Mike, desperately interrogating a witch-like figure at a traditional Celtic Halloween gathering, keeps pressing her for information until she finally admits, “I’m just a schoolteacher from Bayside.”
She must have a long commute, since the location, meant to be New York City, is so obviously Canadian that it’s a wonder the characters don’t have accents.
By the time Mike enters a homeless enclave whose residents are led by a mysterious blind man (Stephen McHattie) with a strong resemblance to Gene Simmons, it’s apparent that Pay the Ghost has given up the ghost. Viewers will be left pondering such questions as why forensic doctors still insist on performing autopsies while alone in morgue rooms late at night.
Production: Voltage Films, Midnight Kitchen
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Veronica Ferres, Lyriq Bent, Lauren Beatty
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
Editor: Jeff McEvoy
Costume designer: Christopher Hargadon
Composer: Joseph Loduca
Casting: John Buchan, Jason Knight
Not rated, 94 min.
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