When it comes to the works of Nicolas Cage, the kookier the better.
I’ve enjoyed him as a face-swapped detective/crook, as a sorcerer and witch hunter, as a wannabe Batman, a caveman and a Wicker Man. I unreservedly adore when this scene-chewing actor goes places emotionally that others wouldn’t dare. It might be campy, it might be wild, but it’s rarely boring.
So when I heard “Pay the Ghost” has Cage trying to reclaim his kidnapped son from a vengeful spirit, I was expecting “Taken” meets “National Treasure” with a dash of “Ghost Rider.” However, despite its concept and its star, “Pay the Ghost” has no interest in being bonkers, which is fine. What’s a shame is just how bland and bumbling it is instead.
Living in a New York City made up of obvious Toronto location shoots and CGI-altered skylines, Mike Lawford (Cage) is a literature professor so caught up in earning tenure that he breaks his promise to take his first-grader son Charlie (Jack Fulton) trick-or-treating. While making amends with ice cream at a Halloween carnival, Mike turns away for just a moment. And just like that, Charlie is gone. The loss kills Mike’s passion for his profession and his marriage, but as the one-year anniversary of the boy’s disappearance approaches, Mike and his ex (Sarah Wayne Callies) begin getting signs from the other side that Charlie isn’t beyond rescue. His promise to save his son is one Mike will do anything to keep, even if it means risking his own soul.
There are good story roots here, and German filmmaker Uli Edel attempts to ground the eerie offering (based on the Tim Lebbon novel) in a spooky atmosphere that includes creepy VFX vultures, ghoulish glimpses of this child-snatching spirit, and some shrewd set design that turns common urban environments into hellish traps. Edel even manifests a handful of successful jump scares. But “Pay the Ghost” never manages to make it to menacing, due in part to its meandering narrative.
Instead of doggedly focusing on Mike’s frantic search for his son, “Pay the Ghost” frequently bounds over to the stalled investigation of dedicated Detective Reynolds (Lyriq Bent). While Bent brings a welcomed intensity and earnestness, his scenes offer little information, and struggle to set up the idiotic suggestion that maybe Mike is to blame for what’s going on. Not just his son’s disappearance, mind you, but also a psychic’s death by apparent spontaneous combustion.
Further fraying the narrative thread, Dan Kay’s screwy script doesn’t give Mike’s intellectual discipline any relevance on his quest. Enter a wedged-in fellow professor (Veronica Ferres) who smiles supportively, serving as a mouthpiece for all the awkward historical backstory. Meanwhile, Mike’s wife does little more than follow him around and cry, making most of the film’s main characters seem like blatant ways to pad the run time.
That misuse of it cast and characters bungles a promising premise before the film lumbers in a creepy but confounding conclusion. Yet maybe all this is mediocrity could not have been saved by a gonzo Cage performance. Regrettably, he doesn’t even try.
More than anything else, the Oscar winner and meme king is simply befuddled here, looking unwell and distracted even before Charlie goes missing. Cage dutifully delivers ridiculous dialogue, and occasionally bellows and bolts through abandoned warehouses desperate for clues. But much like his haunted onscreen son, Cage seems like he’s sleepwalking. He’s downright boring — and that, sadly, is the biggest shock this thriller delivers.
Already available now on iTunes and on demand, “Pay the Ghost” opens today in theaters.
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