Friday, September 18, 2015

In Theaters/On VOD: PAY THE GHOST (2015)

(US - 2015)

Directed by Uli Edel. Written by Dan Kay. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Veronica Ferres, Lyriq Bent, Stephen McHattie, Jack Fulton, Lauren Beatty, Kalie Hunter, Susannah Hoffmann. (Unrated, 94 mins)

The latest VOD offering in Nicolas Cage's slide into irrelevance is a tired and entirely too derivative supernatural horror film that tries to combine INSIDIOUS and SILENT HILL and ends up just a pale, predictable retread of both. Given the fanatastical elements of the film, Cage is surprisingly restrained as Mike Lawford, a tenured English professor in NYC (or, more accurately, a Toronto backlot with a CGI Manhattan Bridge), who loses his young son Charlie (Jack Fulton) at a Halloween carnival. Prior to his disappearance, Charlie made a couple of offhand comments about seeing a figure outside out his window and needing to "pay the ghost." A year goes by with no breaks in the case for detective Reynolds (Lyriq Bent), and Mike's marriage to Kristen (former WALKING DEAD star Sarah Wayne Callies) is on the rocks since she blames him for losing Charlie. In his obsessive search for his son, Mike uncovers more evidence of missing children taken around Halloween--children who also spoke of a dark figure or a "phantom" approaching them in the days before the abduction--and a medium (Susannah Hoffmann) is violently attacked and burned by a malevolent force when she enters the Lawford house to inquire about any spirits within. Mike seeks the help of Hannah (Veronica Ferres), a colleague in the history department, who tells him of a young Irish mother accused of paganism and witchcraft in 1679, whose punishment was witnessing her three children burned alive. This witch--Annie Sawquin (Lauren Beatty)--is back, gathering all the children she can and whisking them off to the spirit world, where Mike must venture in order to rescue his son.

There is nothing in PAY THE GHOST that you haven't seen a hundred times before. Based on a short story by British horror writer Tim Lebbon, the film looks drab and unspectacular, and Cage is just going through the motions. It's a bland venture into the horror genre for both Cage and German director Uli Edel, best known in his homeland for 1981's grim and groundbreaking CHRISTIANE F and for 1989's bleak-as-hell adaptation of Hubert Selby, Jr's LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN (he also made the 1993 Madonna bomb BODY OF EVIDENCE). Though he's made a couple of great films and still cranks out a good one every now and again (2008's THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX got a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nod), Edel doesn't bring any sense of style to the proceedings other than the perfunctory efficiency of a veteran journeyman director getting a job done. There's some cheap jump scares that you'll see coming before they happen, and a lot of shadows and mist when Mike crosses over into the spirit world to rescue Charlie (it's here that the film just becomes a grayer and less garish ripoff of INSIDIOUS). Sometimes, PAY THE GHOST is downright silly, whether it's the medium arriving in a taxi and immediately and ominously looking up at the dark, overcast sky, or Mike and Kristen going to a pagan ritual re-enactment to seek some answers and being told by the first person they ask "I'm just here to dance...I'm just a schoolteacher." Without missing a beat, the schoolteacher who's just there to dance and knows nothing becomes Mrs. Basil Exposition, unleashing pages upon pages of backstory and complex details about paganism, witchcraft, portals, and spirit worlds, simply because Edel needs to get his actors to the next part of the story and has no other way to make it happen. The great character actor Stephen McHattie also appears as a creepy blind guy who looks like a homeless Tommy Wiseau and serves as a gatekeeper of sorts to the spirit realm.

Devoid of scares, indifferently directed by Edel, and blandly acted by Cage, PAY THE GHOST should be a new euphemism for coasting film figures with revered pasts who are capable of delivering more than the shrugging, phoned-in work they're doing. Example: "Did you see the remake of LEFT BEHIND?  Nic Cage was just paying the ghost on that one."

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