Streaming Screams: “Pay the Ghost”

While I appreciate the affectionate joy that greets the release of a new Nicolas Cage movie seemingly every six months, I tend to observe it from a casual distance. You see, I haven’t watched a Nicolas Cage movie since 2007. That means I’ve missed roughly 137 movies. That means I’ve missed his implausible hair in action in Bangkok Dangerous. I’ve missed seeing him piss fire in Ghost Rider. I’ve missed whatever the hell he was doing in Drive Angry.

I gave up on Nicolas Cage after watching the remake of The Wicker Man, a movie that nearly sent me into rage seizures. It offended me on every possible level, as a movie fan, as a woman, and as a human being. Now, I know most of the blame can be laid squarely at the feet of writer/director/deplorable individual Neil LaBute, but Nicolas Cage was tainted for me as well just by appearing in it (I also no longer watch Leelee Sobieski movies, but that’s proven less challenging). You might say that I threw out the baby with the pretentious, misogynistic bathwater.

Nevertheless, I am nothing if not merciful, and when I saw that 2015’s Pay the Ghost was available on Netflix, it seemed like the right time to reintroduce myself to the inimitable delights of Mr. Cage. Sadly, like most of his recent movies, there’s not even any “so bad it’s good” enjoyment to be found. If anything, it’s aggressively mediocre, absolutely determined to in no way differentiate itself from the dozens of other paranormal child in peril movies released over the past decade.

Cage plays Mike Lawford, a workaholic college professor who lives with a sweetly understanding wife (Sarah Wayne Callies) and an adoring young son in a version of New York City that looks suspiciously like Toronto. On Halloween, his son, Charlie, disappears while at a carnival, just after uttering a mysterious phrase (and having visions of vultures and malevolent cloaked figures). Almost exactly a year later, his marriage having fallen apart over the stress of losing a child, Mike finds himself haunted by visions of Charlie, as well as other spectral evidence that not only is Charlie reaching out to him from some sort of “beyond” for help, but so might be other children who disappeared the same night.

Despite starting out with a couple effective moments (the Halloween carnival scene is nicely eerie), Pay the Ghost quickly devolves into the usual tiresome supernatural claptrap, involving vengeful ghosts, creepy pale kids, and a half-assed occult twist that involves someone using the phrases “legend has it” and “on this very night.” It’s not so much a screenplay as it is a checklist that’s filled out with almost machine-like precision: spooky child’s drawing? Check. Well-meaning friend who pays dearly for their meddling? Check. Scene involving a psychic? Check. Parent having to enter another dimension to retrieve their child? Check, check, and check. It becomes such a predictable slog that you find yourself wishing that Charlie had been taken by a C.H.U.D. instead. Most horror movies would be improved by the addition of a C.H.U.D., Pay the Ghost especially would.

What is perhaps most disappointing is Nicolas Cage’s performance. He’s just not the human ham sandwich I had come to expect him to be, and it would have made the movie much more entertaining. Not better, mind you, but more entertaining. Alas, he knows the script is derivative junk at least as much as the audience does, and it shows. Like the movie itself, he starts out okay, but quickly loses his steam. He too has a checklist to fill out, with one line: “Wait for the check to clear.”

Pay the Ghost is currently available on Netflix

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