Witness: 51-year-old Nicolas Cage running. Now miles away from his Con Air and Face/Off days, during which the world puzzlingly accepted him as a weirdly-mulleted and/or bug-eyed, slurry action star, he’s still running—first in panic, then after a bus, then after his character’s estranged wife, then from a witch-monster ghost-lady thing. In Pay the Ghost, the actor’s latest evidence he’s probably having some serious tax or alimony problems, Nicolas Cage does a lot of running, and the experience of watching Nicolas Cage run feels like we’re in the midst of a nightmare from which we’re unable to wake: We silently and helplessly beg him to push himself harder, to pick up his knees higher, to move his arms more—to go faster. When Nicolas Cage runs, it’s as if he’s treading through a swamp of molasses. Everything is in slow motion. He looks as if he’s in pain. He looks like he’s crying.
How did we get here? The saddest part about Pay the Ghost is that its mediocrity—a B-grade horror with pointless jump scares but a seriously batshit third act worth waiting for—is almost a given for the Oscar-winning actor. His recent films tend to fall more in line with the deplorable likes of Left Behind or Rage (the latter a numb-nuts piece of near-intolerable schlock shared with Danny Glover, who knows well the degrees to which stardom can wane) than the quiet character studies of David Gordon Green’s Joe. But it’s roles like Joe’s which are exactly the kind of stuff that won Cage his big award 20 years ago. Which isn’t to say that we can’t embrace the new version 2.0 Cage, the man we now accept as the primogeniture of straight-to-VOD, balls-out weirdness. Epitomized in Werner Herzog’s brilliant Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans, Nicolas Cage is today a man on the edge of sanity, farting around on the fringes of Hollywood by spiking his considerable chops with total shamelessness.
So the most salient disappointment in Pay the Ghost is that it hardly gives Cage any room to mean-mug, to wildly gesticulate, to do much of anything even vaguely interesting. This is mostly director Uli Edel’s fault as far as being a guy who directs films goes—especially given that Edel knows what it’s like to dip his toes into the Oscar pool before drowning in diminishing returns—because all he can offer Cage is a sort of yawning 90-minute distraction that represents not so much a major disappointment as an assured trajectory for an ever-dwindling career. Setting his style to “bleak” and resorting to, at best, cobbling a visual language from some of Cage’s more compelling features, Edel doesn’t really even seem to know what kind of flick he’s making, sort of wandering aimlessly between supernatural thriller, dark fantasy, mid-’90s bargain-bin horror, and folksy character study. Think The Wicker Man meets—I dunno, let me just close my eyes and randomly point at something in his filmography—um, Bangkok Dangerous? Ugh.
Pay the Ghost introduces us to Professor Mike (Cage), an expert in spooky classical texts at some stock New York collegiate institution, a man who in his quest to gain tenure often forgets to charge his phone, causing him to lose track of time, which often means he’s working late to the detriment of his relationship with his wife Kristen (Sarah Wayne Callies) and son Charlie (Jack Fulton). One would think that Mike’s academic propensity for H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe (demonstrated by an early scene in which Mike’s lecture is actually applauded by his students, some of whom are leered at by the camera, suggesting a teacher-student affair that never happens—only stressing the laziness and stupidity of Edel’s mise-en-scene) would help him with the ensuing ghost story. But no—the fact that he’s a literature professor with his mind steeped in the macabre is never mentioned again, except for lending him an open-mindedness ready to grasp the scary depths of spiritual horror up until then overlooked by the erstwhile oblivious denizens of New York City.
For no discernible reason, Charlie totally disappears on Halloween, driving a wedge between Mike and Kristen. A year passes, and the couple has become estranged over their loss, Kristen trying to move on with her “business” (or whatever she does) while Mike exploits his tenure by obsessing over Charlie’s disappearance and not really showing up for work all that much. Yet, Mike’s suspicions that Charlie is still alive gain some attention once he starts having ghastly visions, leading him to believe that Charlie is trying to communicate somehow. Plus, Kristen’s on board once she—in potentially the stupidest scene in a film chock-full of stupid scenes—witnesses Charlie’s scooter scoot all by itself! Reunited, Mike and Kristen set out to solve the mystery of who absconded with their son, which—spoiler alert?—legitimately makes no fucking sense and has something to do with witches and Celtic mythology.
None of which matters, because as Mike and Kristen go about their investigation, talking to the father of a girl who was kidnapped the year before Charlie, or to Mike’s boss (Veronica Ferres)—who is maybe the Dean at the college?—about old-timey scary stories, or to an expert in Celtic mythology who the couple—for reals—meets randomly in the street, no one stops to question the validity or logic behind the expositional absurdity of what Mike and Kristen are telling them, instead offering very succinct contributions to the overall mystery. For example, the woman (Caroline Gillis) who seems ready at a moment’s notice to give the parental duo a primer in esoteric Celtic mythology, doesn’t hesitate to take their claims of spiritual evil lightly, instead laying out the very strict rules about—yes—going through a portal into another dimension where a ghost from the 16th century happens to be storing legions of semi-dead spectral children, a portal that’s only open until midnight, she’s so glad you asked. She’s just been sitting on that information for who knows how long.
So Mike is then all like, “Well, guess I better head into that other dimension to get Charlie.” Which he does, offering the film’s only near-gorgeous setpiece: a vast field of colorless juvenile spirits, wordlessly reaching out to Mike as he searches for his son. Of course, the idiocy of Mike going into another dimension to rescue Charlie has nothing to do with the fantastical nature of the circumstances at all—it’s that Edel and screenwriter Dan Kay offer nothing in the way of an internal logic that could possibly set the parameters for the predicament Mike and Kristen are facing. Pay the Ghost can’t even bother to explain any of the most basic of its premises, which makes the fact that every character just kind of goes along with the bonkers nature of whatever’s happening all the more difficult to stomach. Couple that with the sad reality that Cage and Callies are actually pretty damn good at doing what they can with the material—Callies especially bears a well-tuned slate of reactions to fictional trauma, tested throughout her time on The Walking Dead—and the scene in which their two characters struggle to accept that their son is gone is a relatively stirring one, everything that needs to be conveyed held completely within their red-rimmed eyes.
But the film’s few moments of competence can’t compensate for a severely underwritten, senseless, pulse-less slog of a thriller. For as many times as characters intone other characters to “pay the ghost,” all involved should have been budgeting better. Or they’re just talking about buying Nicolas Cage’s involvement.
Director: Uli Edel
Writer: Dan Kay (screenplay); Tim Lebbon (short story)
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Stephen McHattie, Lyriq Bent, Jack Fulton, Veronica Ferres
Release Date: September 25, 2015
Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Since he grew up in the Detroit area, it is required by law that his favorite movie is Robocop. You can follow him on Twitter.