One Halloween evening literature professor Mike Lawford loses his son at a Halloween carnival. The boy never shows up. For a year, Mike looks for his son and tries to find the meaning of the boy’s last words, ‘Pay the ghost.’ After a year of searching without a clue, horrifying images appear to Mike and his wife, but also patterns start to form in the evidence, just prior to the next Halloween. Mike is afraid that if he does not solve the mystery soon he will never see his son again. Uli Edel directs a screenplay by Dan Kay based on a story by Tim Lebbon. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
The film opens in New York of 1679 for a brief look at some terrified children. We see too little to know what is going on.
Next, we flash forward, and it is last Halloween. Mike Lawford (played by Nicolas Cage) is having a great holiday. He is thrilled that he has just gotten academic tenure and is teaching horror stories to his class at college, and going to take his son Charlie to see the parade of costumes at a carnival a block or so from their New York City home. Mike has a hard time holding on to Charlie who then cryptically tells his father to ‘Pay the ghost’ and disappears into the crowd not to be seen again. With rising fear, Mike searches for his son but the boy has just vanished.
Now it is a year later and Mike is obsessed with finding Charlie and having what may be hallucinations. He starts seeing graffiti on walls and in tunnels, which says, ‘Pay the ghost.’ Is his son the victim of kidnappers or has he fallen prey to something evil and supernatural? Is it something that has its roots centuries in the past? For the first half of the film, the pacing is a little slow, but it picks up in the second half. Still there is something lacking here to make the climactic scenes pack a sufficient scare. A final showdown, I will not say with what, is a little bland by today’s standards.
Nicolas Cage can play an interesting range of emotions but fear just does not seem to be one. Placed in a terrifying position his ability to emote seems to shut down and it is just where the viewer could use a little fear to be drawn into the film. We need to feel his danger but, even at the climax, he has not won the viewer over to fear his peril. Perhaps he was the wrong actor for this role.
Once the premise is established there is not enough original idea here to sustain a feature film. It may work for some if they are caught in the right mood and have not seen the films that it borrows from but, in general, there is not enough here to excite enough real horror. I rate ‘Pay The Ghost’ a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. The film opens September 25.
Minor spoiler: Someone could correct me on this, but I am fairly certain that there were no witch burnings in the North America and certainly not in New York.
Mark R. Leeper
(c) Mark R. Leeper 2015