Nicolas Cage, who was once numbered among the finest American actors, has become the king of the modern B-movie, notwithstanding an occasional return to form in a film like David Gordon Green’s “Joe.” By now he’s starred in many a stinker, and “Pay the Ghost” certainly falls into that category. Uli Edel’s pre-Halloween horror movie is an insufferably sluggish, irredeemably silly supernatural non-thriller that isn’t remotely scary but is continuously boring. And Cage stumbles through it looking understandably dazed and confused.
He plays Mike, an English professor at an undisclosed NYC university who seems to specialize in literature dealing with creatures of the night. He’s also extremely busy, since he’s trying to finish up scholarly work in order to secure tenure. That leads him to be away from home more often than he’d like, something that irks his wife Kristen (Sarah Wayne Callies) and disappoints his little son Charlie (Jack Fulton), especially on All Hallows Eve, and especially because the tyke has been troubled by a fearsome apparition outside his bedroom window. Arriving back from the campus just as Charlie and Kristen are returning from trick-and-treating, Mike persuades his wife to let him take the boy to a nearby street fair, but Charlie disappears while his dad is buying them ice cream there.
Cut to nearly a year later. Charlie is still missing, Mike remains distraught, badgering the detective on the case (Lyriq Bent) for answers, and he and Kristen have separated. But he begins to be haunted by apparitions of his own—large birds flying overhead and shrouded figures suddenly showing up in clouds of mist. He also encounters a group of obviously homeless folk, headed by a robed figure (Stephen McHattie), dwelling in underground tunnels beside graffiti reading “Pay the ghost”—words that Charlie said just before he disappeared. And as Mike looks into the city’s history with a colleague (Veronica Ferres), he discovers a possible connection to Celtic magic involving a seventeenth-century woman who was burned as a witch after being forced to watch her three children die—and who threatened to return every year to take others to replace the youngsters stolen from her. Cue his effort to recover Charlie from “the crone”—as the long-dead witch is now called—before the stroke of midnight, when the entrance to the netherworld where she takes them will shut. All of which Mike learns from a woman at a Celtic ceremony held on Manhattan every year—who before recounting it first identifies herself as a simple housewife who’s there just for fun!
In any event, this information takes Mike back to McHattie’s hooded man, who shows him—in return for his watch!—the bridge to the crone’s netherworld haven where not only Charlie but all the children abducted by the hag over the course of hundreds of years are located, all of them just standing around inert. A stickler for the arbitrary rules—which Mike follows without question—he removes only his son and the two other kids kidnapped this year (he’s been told there’s a sort of one-year statute of limitations in this regard!) but still the crone tries to prevent them front leaving. A big special effects confrontation ensues, followed by the inevitable happy ending—and a totally illogical scene during the final credits threatening a sequel.
All this convoluted nonsense is played out lethargically under Edel’s laggard direction, and Cage alternately scrunches up his face to simulate pain and takes on a bewildered look with which those of us trying to comprehend the lunacy occurring on screen can well sympathize. The rest of the adult cast is adequate, despite having to deliver some ludicrously flat dialogue from Dan Kay. (Ferres and Bent suffer the most in that respect, but Callies isn’t far behind.) Fulton is a cute tyke. Rupert Lazarus’ production design is gloomy, an effect accentuated by Sharone Meir’s cinematography, which drenches the images in grays, blues and dark greens, and Joseph Loduca’s score telegraphs every would-be shock moment.
It’s difficult to make a good horror film nowadays, so the fact that “Pay the Ghost” is bad comes as no surprise. It’s getting just about as hard to find a good Nicolas Cage movie, so here you have a twofer.