“There’s a more than halfway decent movie here struggling to get out, it’s just buried under too much that lags and drags.”
On paper, at least, Pay the Ghost has an impressive pedigree: in addition to the high quality source material in the shape of the excellent novella by Tim Lebbon, it’s directed by the Oscar-nominated Uli Edel (who’s probably best known for the bleakly brilliant Last Exit to Brooklyn, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s finest hour amongst many fine hours) and stars Nicolas Cage and The Walking Dead’s Sarah Wayne Callies, both excellent (well, okay, Cage has it in him to be excellent, even if he doesn’t always quite get there) actors. With this kind of talent involved, it’s got to work, hasn’t it?
Let’s start with the good, because there are certainly things to recommend Pay the Ghost. It’s nicely made, isn’t a found footage movie (always a bonus in this day and age) and has scenes of real power. The central story, of Cage’s lecturer everyman Mike Lawson searching for his missing son (who disappeared whilst in Cage’s charge) has a basic emotional power, and the dizzying camerawork when Cage is searching the Halloween party/parade for his son gives the early part of the movie a real punch. Cage, in his quieter moments, proves he’s still got the power to give his characters depth and reality whatever the script actually has him say, and the two central characters, Mike and Kristen, are well-drawn and you genuinely want them to find their missing child. Some scenes are creepy enough (there’s a good moment with a child’s drawing on an iPad), and Edel has an eye for well-framed imagery. The special effects are pretty good, and the recurring birds in the first half of the movie are faintly unsettling and ominous. Lebbon’s villain is scary and has a decent back-story, and the sight of burning children is always worth a shudder. So, what’s not to like?
Well the problems here are the casting of Cage and the script (by Dan Kay). Cage first: he’s a brilliant actor, but in Pay the Ghost he’s suddenly started to look his age. It’s not that Cage being old is a problem, it’s simply that he looks too old to be a professor seeking tenure, or to have the wife and son he’s got in this movie. It smacks of the general Hollywood refusal to create age-appropriate male-female relationships in films, partnering too-old men with women who, in real life (you’d imagine) wouldn’t look twice at the men they’re supposed to be married to or are falling in love with.
As a viewer, you could get over the Cage age thing if Pay the Ghost grabbed you by the scruff of the neck and dragged you along, kicking and screaming, through 90 minutes of terror and shock, but sadly it doesn’t. Although based on Lebbon’s original tale, which is a smart and frightening piece of work, the film feels as though screenwriter Kay has watched too many Insidious/Sinister movies and then tried to copy their best bits when adapting this film. The gives the film a ‘seen it all before’ flatness that it never really overcomes, especially as inbetween the scary scenes he lets the atmosphere flag to almost nothing. In fairness, his action moments and scares generally work – a séance that ends badly, for example, is exciting and creepy, but not in any way original. It’s not that anything is wrong with what Kay’s written, it’s just not very fresh and it’s not consistent enough to sustain a whole movie.
Even this you could perhaps overcome, but the film is hampered by weak development of the secondary characters. Lyric Bent, in particular, has his screen time wasted as the police detective who does very little, which is a pity as his scenes with Cage are actually rather good and you can’t help but want to have seen more of the Bent character and his investigations/interactions with Cage. Plot points that stretch and sometimes break credulity (why didn’t the police confiscate Cage’s movie camera on which he’d filmed the night of the disappearance, being just one example) serves to keep the viewers feet securely in the non-movie real world, dragging things back to reality when you really need to be able to fly and simply enjoy. Finally, there’s a frankly silly jump ending (that’s not a spoiler, you’ll see it coming) that makes little sense, and if you don’t watch the climax of the film and then think “how’s he going to explain that to the police” then you’re a stronger and more forgiving viewer than most. It’s a pity as you get the impression there’s a more than halfway decent movie here struggling to get out, it’s just buried under too much that lags and drags.
In the end, Pay the Ghost isn’t anything special but functions well enough as a supernatural thriller despite the disappointment of knowing it could have been so much more. Ultimately, it’s nice to see modern horror stories being adapted for film, and there’s enough here to fill a couple of hours of your time not too painfully. Rent by all means, but take you brains out and turn off your sharper critical faculties before you watch and you’ve every chance of enjoying what is on offer, even though you’ll feel you’ve seen it all before.
SIMON KURT UNSWORTH
Director: Uli Edel
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Sarah Wayne Callies
Certificate: 15 (UK)
Release date: 23 October 2015 (UK)
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