Friday, 6 November 2015


Of all the actors to turn away from a very successful mainstream Hollywood career to take on genre projects, Nicolas Cage is far and away one of the most talented.
Sure, his work in the ill-advised Wicker Man remake was the subject of plenty of internet jokes, but this is the same man who starred in the fantastic Raising Arizona and scooped a host of acting awards for Leaving Las Vegas, before reinventing himself as an action hero in three of the biggest (and best) Hollywood action films of the late Nineties: The Rock; Face/Off; and Con Air.
Hollywood's loss has become our gain, and we've had strong outings in the likes of Ghostrider and Drive Angry in recent years, which have both been daft but great fun.
Now Cage returns to horror with Uli Edel's Pay The Ghost, a creepy story that emerged just in time to tie in with its Halloween setting.


Dir: Uli Edel

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Jack Fulton, Lyriq Bent, Veronica Ferres, Stephen McHattie, Lauren Beatty, Kalie Hunter

SPEEDY SYNOPSIS: I'll try not to spoil too much here, but read on at your own risk.

Mike Lawford (Cage) is a university lecturer who works all hours in an effort to secure a promotion that will provide a significant payrise, affording a far more comfortable life to Mike, his wife Kristen (Callies) and their young son Charlie (Fulton).

However, the increased workload means that Mike is often forced to miss key family occasions, leaving Charlie regularly disappointed.
After the latest of these sees Mike get home too late to go trick or treating with Kristen and Charlie, he instead offers to take his son to a nearby Halloween parade.
The two head into the bustling crowd and, after seeing an ominous cloaked figure and circling buzzards, Charlie whispers: 'Can we pay the ghost?', before promptly disappearing into the ether.
Frantic, Mike desperately dashes around the parade to find his son, but to no avail. Later a policeman informs Mike that most missing children cases are resolved within 24 hours.
One year later, Charlie is still missing. 
Mike and Kristen's relationship has crumbled, with her blaming him for the loss of their child. Mike has recently returned to work under the careful guidance of friend and colleague Hannah (Ferres), but he spends most of his time researching missing children cases, reporting his findings to decent but stumped police detective Jordan (Bent) and roaming the streets of the New York, pinning up missing person posters.
All seems to be lost, until one such outing leads him to an abandoned building with the phrase 'Pay the ghost' daubed on the walls. A meeting with an enigmatic blind man (McHattie) among the small homeless community sheltering within leads him to a dingy tunnel in which the disembodied voice of a weeping woman can be heard.
From here Mike's investigation takes a new tack, and spurred on by visions of Charlie and something darker and more terrifying, he looks to uncover the haunting secret behind the raft of unsolved disappearances around on Halloween each year in the city.
Can he discover the truth? Can he save his son and, with it, his marriage? Or will Mike pay the ghost?

THE BEST BITS (mild spoiler warning): Aside from a sterling cast of faces that will be familiar to genre fans, the strongest thing about Pay the Ghost is a surprisingly deep and emotional storyline. As a father to a young son I was probably more susceptible to sympathise with Cage's Mike, but even viewers with no such emotional baggage will be hard-pressed to remain unmoved by the character's plight.
The story (by Dan Kay, adapting Tim Lebbon's novella) feels that little bit richer with emotional weight and clearly defined characters, as is so often the case with literary adaptations.
What's more, the clever and assured camerawork ensures that the tension of each scene is fully realised. Mike's desperate search for Charlie is especially powerful, hitting you straight in the gut and making his fear palpable. 
The clever camerawork is also useful during some of the scarier scenes and contributes to a couple of well-worked jumps. 
But back to that strong cast — Cage plays Mike in a far more restrained manner than some may be expecting. You could be forgiven for assuming that Mike's desperate search for Charlie will be portrayed with Cage's trademark bug-eyed manic fervour. Instead he plays Mike as a broken man — a quiet academic robbed of all joy along with his son. It's interesting to see Cage rein it in and, for the most part, it works.
Besides Cage, the Walking Dead's Callies also impresses. She does a strong line in sympathetic, vulnerable women and this a role in which she definitely plays to her strengths. She's also given a strong arc and it's easy to root for Kristen and Mike to rediscover their relationship along with their missing son.
As you might have guessed, young Fulton doesn't have a huge amount of screentime, but he's a talented young actor and doesn't put a foot wrong while he is on camera. 
Elsewhere genre veteran character actor McHattie (who has one of those 'oh, HIM! I've seen him before!' faces) is great in what amounts to little more than an extended (but very cool) cameo, while German superstar Ferres lends some strong and capable support in her role as Mike's confidante and occasional exposition-spouter.
Finally, the film delivers some decent scares. It's not just the aforementioned jumpscares, there's a lot of atmosphere, presented beautifully by cinematographer Sharone Meir. With a seedy, rundown urban feel à la Candyman, there are also some creatively spooky flourishes along the way. Rows of grinning pumpkins sit on doorsteps and in windows, the shadowy religious iconography is presented by firelight and the grim-looking buzzards make for a very nice touch, while the tattered and burnt phantom at the heart of proceedings provides some decent chills.
With a story that takes in witchcraft and the practice of pagan rituals that date back to long before the birth of the city that currently bears their curse, it's a heady and spooky tale full of Halloween seasonal atmosphere. I very much expect it to become a TV regular in late October in the years ahead.

THE WORST BITS (mild spoiler warning): Sadly, while I enjoyed the cast of Pay the Ghost, not all of them were given much to work with. 
The super-talented Ferres is pretty much wasted in a role which is, ultimately, close to pointless.
So too was Bent, which left his character Jordan feeling like little more than a cliché used to forward a couple of minor plot points.
While Cage's Mike was far more well-rounded, I'm still not entirely sure his quieter performance was the right move. If a horror film throws some of the things at you that this one does, you have to think that it's trying to have a little fun. Cage is incredibly downbeat in his performance. I'm not saying that I feel this was a half-arsed effort on his part (unlike some critics I've read), but I think that some scenes could have benefited from his usual, more-lively screen persona.
Finally, as I was watching Pay the Ghost, I found myself thinking: 'Wow, this is a surprisingly personal little genre film. I'm digging this!'... and then that came to a screeching halt.
I don't want to spoil the ending here, but suffice to say the climax absolutely missed the spot for me.
With a superb 'ticking-clock' plot device and following on from a genuinely unnerving set piece involving scores of supernaturally abducted children, I was really buying into it. Then, for some reason that I simply cannot fathom, the scene devolves into a massive mess of poorly executed CG that robbed the closing moments of all the drama and tension that had been built during the preceding minutes.
What makes this even more galling is that I can see a practical way in which exactly the same outcome could have been delivered (one that made good use of the aforementioned spooky kids).
That the ropy CG was then followed by an eye-rolling action movie cliché — that actually provoked laughter from the crowd with whom I watched the film — was adding insult to injury.
The denouement itself was rather pleasant, but sadly my enjoyment of the film was soured somewhat by the finale.

THE VERDICT: Iffy climax aside, Pay the Ghost is a fun film that offers some nice characterisation, plenty of atmosphere and a good few frights along the way. It's not likely to top too many critics' -end-of-year 'best of…' lists, but if you're in the mood for a scary story on a quiet night in, you could do a lot worse than choosing Mr Cage for company. 
Give it a try and do let me know your thoughts in the comments below — I expect this one could prove polarising!
If you want to give Pay the Ghost a chance, you can buy it through Amazon here at a knockdown price!

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Until next time, I hope you enjoyed your stay.

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