Pay The Ghost (2016)
Dir. Uli Edel
Written by Dan Kay (based on a novella by Tim Lebbon)
Starring Nicholas Cage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Veronica Ferres
So what we got here is a surprisingly competent spin on mainstream “Adult Contemporary Horror” which starts off very respectably, like these things are supposed to, with a slick, Hollywood look making a boring mystery even less interesting, and a bunch of overqualified professional acting wasted on uninteresting characters doing the standard “obsession-over-missing-kid” bit. You know, like THE FORGOTTEN, FLIGHT PLAN, GODSEND, that sort of thing, where responsible adults feel they have to make a staid, sensible horror movie for grown ups about grown up emotions, and hire real actors and stuff to do it. But gradually, this one drifts away into more unabashedly schlocky territory, much to its improvement. You’ve got to wait awhile, but eventually Nic Cage can and will get into a fist fight with a floating zombie. So I ended up enjoying it.
Nic Cage (VALLEY GIRL, THE FROZEN GROUND) plays put-upon English professor Mike Lawford of an unnamed NYC university with a suspiciously sprawling, sleepy mid-town location. He’s a cool teacher who dramatically reads passages to his spellbound audience and drops references to Lovecraft and 18th-century German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (who, completely coincidentally, turns out to be the author of a poem called Der Erlkönig which, --get this!-- is about a child assailed by supernatural beings, which as luck would have it is about to become a major theme in Mike’s real life. Ain’t life just too funny sometimes?). The kids love him. I’m amazed they don’t feel the need to restage the in-retrospect-exceedingly-uncomfortable scene from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK where the lovestruck student in Indy’s class has written “love you” on her eyelids. But because he’s such a fucking boss professor, he’s under pressure at work and never has time for his adorable son Charlie (Jack Fulton, episodes of Orphan Black and 12 Monkeys) and his wife (Sarah Wayne Callies, apparently she was Lori on Walking Dead) is getting annoyed with him. To make up for his general state of paternal neglect (and having completely blown off trick-or-treating with his kid, despite an irresponsible earlier promise), he brings Charlie to a huge outdoor Halloween street party, which is frankly pretty fucking awesome and definitely worth a few years of childhood therapy. Unfortunately, Charlie has recently been seeing a mysterious cloaked figure hovering outside his bedroom window,* so it’s no surprise to us that when Mike turns his back on the kid for a split second, he’s suddenly vanished. But not before mysteriously asking if they can “Pay The Ghost,” which I suspect is probably the origin of the movie’s title, not to be too bold about offering a slice of personal opinion.
|Cage is playing it pretty low-key mostly, but I bet this costume was his idea.|
Well, flash forward a year, and Mike is estranged from his wife and down on his luck and spends all day creating those elaborate conspiracy string maps on a pinboard and browbeating the overworked detective (Lyriq Bent, SAW II-IV) assigned to the case. And then he starts to have visions of Charlie appearing randomly around the parts of New York City which resemble Toronto most closely, which he correctly interprets as a sign that Charlie’s disappearance is part of an ancient supernatural conspiracy, not that he needs to move on with his life. He runs around for awhile encountering ambiguous supernatural rigamarole and not being believed by authority figures even when patently crazy ghost shit starts to go down, and then he finally meets a helpful middle school teacher at a historical reenactment who happens to know exactly what’s going on and explains it all in one cheerful exposition dump, all while helpfully qualifying “but it’s just a myth!” (it turns out not to be, though, spoiler). And then Nic Cage goes to a magic underground homeless encampment and a blind man (Stephen McHattie, EXIT HUMANITY, HAUNTER, PONTYPOOL, always nice to see him turn up) speaks in riddles and then he crosses a mythical boundary between the living and dead which happens to be down there, etc, etc, you know how these things go, and eventually he ends up punching, rather than paying, a ghost.
So yes, this is a stupid movie. I mean, you had to be expecting that; if anything, your legitimate fear would be that it wouldn’t be stupid enough, and for awhile such fears seem justified. Fortunately, by the finale it’s so unabashed about its schlocky horror elements that it actually sort of won me over. Director Uli Edel (a German import with an erratic filmography that ranges from Madonna’s BODY OF EVIDENCE to Jonathan Lipnicki’s THE LITTLE VAMPIRE to the Academy-Award nominated THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX) actually seems like he might enjoy horror films unironically, and without the need to comment on them or cleverly reshape their standard conventions or anything. Imagine that. A lot of times when you get these Adult Contemporary Horror movies, you get successful directors of well-received dramas who clearly think this genre is beneath them and that any hack can make a horror film, and it takes a real director to make lugubrious weepy chamber dramas about feelings. And inevitably, the end result proves exactly the opposite: horror is perhaps the most inherently cinematic of all genres, and it takes an entirely different skillset to effectively cultivate unease and terror than it does to light a room sufficiently to watch Julianne Moore cry about something. Directors from John Huston (PHOBIA) to Jim Sheridan (DREAM HOME) to Richard Marquand (THE LEGACY) have all deigned to dabble in the horror genre, with predictably anemic results. Edel --probably no one’s idea of a great director, but a seasoned mainstream pro-- actually strikes me as a rare mainstream director who at least understands the essentials of horror imagery and framing; this is by no means a good movie or a scary one, but at least its intentions as a horror movie feel honorable and earned. It’s bad and mostly dispiriting generic -- I mean, you pick any horror cliche at random, you can bet it's in here-- but at least it’s legit.
Most of the movie is still pretty dry, but I think the big elaborate festival sequence where Charlie disappears, and a later sequence where Cage encounters a rather large room full of ghost children, are genuinely pretty great, which is not a word I ever expected to use while describing any aspect of this movie. Those two standout sequences, plus Stephen McHattie in a small, weird role as an underground homeless shaman (he gives Cage a flashlight even though he’s blind, hahah, wut?), a wild vulture attack, and a surreal underground gateway between death and life are sufficient bounty to make this an overall positive experience, even if it’s pretty slow going early on. Plus, a lot of it honestly looks quite handsome, well-utilizing real locations but adding plenty of surreal horror movie menace. Is it corny and ridiculous? Oh hell yeah, but it’s also competently assembled, and while it doesn’t give Cage too many opportunities to indulge in his trademark mega-acting, his “holy shit, I can’t believe ghosts are real!” face is still pretty entertaining and his presence obviously elevates things, even when he’s playing it pretty low-key like he mostly is here.
It’s generally a little too staid to be as ridiculous as you probably want it to be. There’s a sprinkling of amusingly ridiculous crap in there; for example, the scene when Cage et al confront some poor schoolteacher on her off night and pump her for information on how to save their kid from ghost jail is pretty funny. Boy, that is one helpful lady, who not only knows exactly what they have to do (because, folklore!), but doesn’t seem at all weirded out that sweaty, panicked parents are telling her they need to use folklore to save their missing son. NYC, ammiright? Mostly, though, it’s a little less outrageous than that, which is a bit disappointing. But everytime you think it’s gonna settle down and be boring, it’ll suddenly throw something pleasingly lowbrow at you, so all is not lost. Surprisingly strong production design and photography throughout go a long way towards adding spice to a not-especially spicy tale, but there’s also something old-fashioned about how unironic it is. In some ways it feels like a modern-day DEVONSVILLE TERROR or something, a solid, middle-of-the-road genre movie which knows it’s not going to be for everyone but is OK with what it is, and professional enough to mostly pull it off if not quite swing for the fences. Which is not exactly high praise, but hopefully does convey a certain kind of grudging affection. This sort of thing has a feeling of being horror for the normals, not for us, but as far as it goes, this is one of the more enjoyable of that ilk. It’s probably a bit too timid for anyone deep enough into the weeds to get excited about a DTV Nic Cage ghost movie, but it’s watchable enough for a lazy Sunday afternoon in October.
And Jesus Christ, it’s certainly workable enough that it could have been released in theaters with minimal shame. You’re telling me THE GALLOWS was good enough to get a wide theatrical release with commercials and everything, and poor Nic Cage can’t even get this perfectly fine, medium-budget ghost movies onto the big screen? Fuck. That’s the scariest thing here, by far.
*And I don’t need to tell you that at some point Cage is going to look at a stack of children’s drawings and notice they’re all-black-crayon apocalyptic visions of death.
CHAINSAWNUKAH 2016 CHECKLIST!
Good Kill Hunting
Evil Walks Among Us although I can’t help but notice it usually hovers
I guess you have to pay the ghost? Not 100% sure what that ever means, but they say it a couple times.
Yes, from Tim Lebbon’s novella of the same name. Lebbon is most famous for writing 30 Days of Night. No, not the comic it was based on, the novelization of the movie that came out after. But he seems like a legit horror author in his own right, although I’ve never heard of any of his other stuff.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
Vanished Kid/ Ghost / Haunting
Nic Cage, I guess.
BELOVED HORROR ICON?
WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!
Vultures are always menacing everyone, they’re clearly in cahoots with the ghost and one eventually crashes their cab by flying into a windshield (so I guess they’re not ghost vultures or anything, they’re solid)
GHOST/ ZOMBIE / HAUNTED BUILDING?
Ghosts galore, and arguably a haunted building
Yup, Cage’s wife goes all possess-y and cuts a clue into her arm.
No, which is weird, because this would be the perfect movie for them. I guess there’s a festival where people are throwing dolls into a fire ritualistically, but you don’t get a good look at them and they don’t seem creepy.
Looks like Cage is cracking up a little, he’s made one of those insanity crime boards, and he’s seeing his lost son everywhere. But he’s later proven correct.
There’s supposedly a ghost watching through the windows, though we don’t really get to see it much (only the kid does)
MORAL OF THE STORY
You should definitely pay the ghost, it would really simplify things for everyone.