PLOT: A father's desperate search for his missing child unearths a Halloween curse that goes back more than 300 years.
REVIEW: Nicolas Cage has a tendency to go over-the-top, a fact which has become overwhelming in his public perception and has become a major deciding factor in whether or not you're a fan of his acting. You either want to see him play to the back row, or you've grown tired of it. Although I felt he was miscast as my favorite Marvel Comics character (GHOST RIDER) and he sometimes goes too far into silliness for me (THE WICKER MAN remake), I enjoy watching Cage at work. Even when he goes too far, at least he always brings an energy to his roles.
When it was announced that Cage would be starring in a supernatural horror movie, I imagined that it would be another case of him going way over-the-top as he faced off with the film's ghostly presence. So I was surprised when I watched PAY THE GHOST and found little evidence of Cage's quirks. In this film, he plays it straight and down-to-earth, normal hairstyle and all.
Cage's character Mike Lawford is a workaholic English professor seeking tenure at NYU. The only time Cage puts any real flourish into his performance is when Mike is reading Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's The Erlking to his class, and that poem, about a father who can't perceive the evil force threatening his child, is fitting for this point in Mike's life, because his preoccupation with work has made him unaware of the fact that an evil force is threatening his own son, Charlie (Jack Fulton).
When Mike and Charlie go to a carnival on Halloween night, the boy mysteriously asks his father, "Can we pay the ghost?" Then he disappears, snatched away by the otherworldly, cloaked figure he has seen lurking around... And not even the fact that Cage is dressed in a cowboy costume during this scene is enough to add levity into this film.
Jump ahead to the next October. As the one year anniversary of Charlie's disappearance nears and it becomes more clear to Mike and his wife Kristen (Sarah Wayne Callies) that there is something supernatural at work here, the phrase "Pay the ghost" turns out to be the key to solving the mystery of not only what happened to Charlie but what has been happening to children in New York City every Halloween night for centuries.
PAY THE GHOST is based on a novella by Tim Lebbon that I haven't read, but the film adaptation - written by Dan Kay and directed by Uli Edel - feels more like it was directly inspired by SINISTER and INSIDIOUS. While an intriguing back story is concocted to explain the child abductions, every horror element in the film has been lifted from a previous movie. There's spectral children hanging around, the visit by a medium, a moment of possession shot in a way that reminded me of the famous head turn from THE EXORCIST, and it all builds up to Mike having to journey into another dimension lorded over by an evil creature to retrieve his lost son.
Sure, these types of movies usually do have some similarities, but here the mix and match from other things is a bit too much because it's all done in a lesser manner. Despite the fact that Edel and cinematographer Sharone Meir achieved a dark, atmospheric look for the film and the great composer Joseph LoDuca put in a strong effort, none of the chills and scares are effective because the movie is just going through the genre motions. There's even a scene where a character's enjoyment of a golden oldie is disrupted by a ghostly occurrence. We've seen all of this before.
Cage and Callies deliver solid performances and have some nice dramatic scenes to work with, just don't go into this film expecting any hint of "crazy Cage". His Mike is a very average guy who has been beaten down by a year of stress and worry, so Cage appropriately shows more restraint than usual.
PAY THE GHOST is technically well made and the story is interesting overall, but I was never drawn in, never invested in what was going on because it seemed to me like the filmmakers were just saying, "This sort of thing worked in that other movie, let's toss it in here." If you can get past the retread aspect, there is some entertainment to be had, but it is a very middle-of-the-road movie. It'd be a fine film to include in an October horror viewing spree, but if you're short on time you'd be better off sticking with the movies it's attempting to emulate.