The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Pay the Ghost

What has happened to Nicolas Cage? Once one of the biggest movie stars around (and an Oscar winner, to boot), his career of late has consisted almost entirely of bargain basement pictures that barely even seem to be trying: The Runner, Dying of the Light, Left Behind, Rage, etc. The latest is Pay the Ghost, a serviceable, yet relentlessly generic supernatural chiller that cribs from scores of other pictures in the genre. It's not the worst thing Cage has ever been in, but it's sure a long way from Leaving Las Vegas.

Cage plays Mike Lawford, a professor putting in a lot of overtime in an effort to attain tenure, to the dismay of wife Kristen (Sarah Wayne Callies). After missing out on trick-or-treating, he tries to make it up to his young son Charlie (Jack Fulton) by taking him to a Halloween carnival down the street. The boy vanishes, shortly after saying something about paying a ghost. A year later, Mike is still searching for Charlie. He spots the words “pay the ghost” spray-painted on a wall and believes that it has some connection to his son. An investigation reveals that a number of children in New York City go missing every Halloween. Thinking there could be some otherworldly explanation for this, he starts following clues, which eventually lead him to a paranormal realm.

Pay the Ghost adheres to a template that will be familiar to anyone who's seen Insidious or Poltergeist:

1.) Kid goes missing (physically or mentally).
2.) Parents realize there's a supernatural component to it and bring in a paranormal “expert.”
3.) A complex historical explanation for the problem is established.
4.) One of the parents has to enter some sort of haunted dimension to bring the child back.

The film, directed by Uli Edel (Body of Evidence), doesn't even try to put a fresh spin on any of this. All the elements are trotted out in the most basic, no-frills manner possible. The idea of a missing child is terrifying, yet Pay the Ghost plays on it minimally. Charlie's disappearance is little more than a catalyst for Mike to encounter unconvincingly-rendered CGI birds and occasional flashes of a demonic face. Nothing here elicits a quickening of the pulse, much less a legitimate scare.

Mike's investigation is equally bland, particularly in its resolution. The movie actually stops to introduce an out-of-nowhere supporting character who gives a confusing, badly-scripted exposition dump pertaining to Celtic folk lore that supposedly clues us in to what's happening with the missing children. Cue the eye-rolling.

For all its lack of effort, Pay the Ghost is not a total disaster. Cage, ever the professional, does what he can with the material, as does Sarah Wayne Callies (The Walking Dead) as Mike's wife. To both actors' credit, they don't sleepwalk through their roles. While the “fright” scenes contain the usual flickering lights and people being thrown against walls or onto the ceiling, cinematographer Sharone Meir (Whiplash) at least brings some visual atmosphere to them. Then there's the ending. Pay the Ghost goes completely over the rails in the last fifteen minutes. Seriously, the train blows right past Crazy Town and just keeps going. Dramatically, it doesn't work – at all – yet the finale is also the most engaging part of the movie. What happens is so bizarre that it has to be seen to be believed. If Pay the Ghost wasn't going to try scaring the audience, it would have been well-served to offer more of this blatant insanity instead.

I've seen worse paranormal chillers, and so have you. We've both also seen much better. Pay the Ghost isn't awful, but it sure does feel as though it's been made for completely non-discriminating viewers. This is a McDonald's meal of a movie, slapped together and designed to taste just like every other McDonald's meal you've ever eaten at any point in your life.

( out of four)

Pay the Ghost is unrated, but contains adult language and scenes of supernatural horror. The running time is 1 hour and 34 minutes.

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