Oh, Mr. Cage, how desperate you must be.
While idly scrolling through an endless minefield of garbage Netflix content, I came across a title just vague and stupid enough to catch my attention. Pay the Ghost? What the hell does that even mean? As a horror/thriller film, the title should be enticing and mysterious, and while that may have been the intention here, reading the words Pay the Ghost just made me laugh instead. What sort of currency do ghosts accept as payment anyway? And what transaction does a ghost need to make? Perhaps there’s some ghost convenience store where the spirits peddle their wares from beyond the grave. Whatever the case, it’s meant to sound ominous, but no one on the planet can say those three words in a creepy way. But boy, the actors in this film sure do try.
In Pay the Ghost, Nicolas Cage plays a desperate, former A-list actor who is now forced to take whatever role they’ll throw his way. Wait…. I have that backwards, sorry. Starting again: Cage plays Mike Lawford, a workaholic literary professor at a prestigious college, who often puts his students before his family. It’s a really compelling concept that we’ve seen thousands of times before. His wife Kristen, played by Prison Break (they’re seriously making a season 5?) and The Walking Dead‘s Sarah Wayne Callies, is barely a character beyond being disappointed in her husband – first for ignoring his family, and then for losing their son. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Cage is introduced in the film in an absurd sequence the copyright holders blocked me from sharing on YouTube. In this early scene, Cage proves his competency as an engaging literary professor by doing a very animated poetry reading in front of his class on Halloween. The entire film is worth watching for this scene alone. Not only is his performance beyond over-the-top (as only Nicolas Cage can be), we’re expected to believe these students find the cartoon voices he adds educational and stimulating. Hell, at the end of the lecture, they even clap for the guy! What is this, Birdemic?
Of course, while he’s busy teaching a class, his son Charlie (Jack Fulton) is at home, eagerly waiting for his dad to take him trick-or-treating. It looks like poor Charlie is about to be let down by his father again. When Cage finally does get back, dressed in a goofy cowboy outfit, Kristen has already taken him out; he’s collected his candy and is just about ready for bed. To make up for his father-failure, Mike takes his son to a midnight Halloween carnival, the streets cluttered with costumed citizens and vendors. As they explore the event, Charlie stops to ask his dad: “Can we pay the ghost?” before vanishing into the night. Mike panics and Kristen is devastated: their son is gone.
CUT TO: ONE YEAR LATER. 3 DAYS BEFORE HALLOWEEN. Charlie is still missing. Mike and Kristen’s lives have taken a slow downward spiral. Now separated, everything is muted for the former happy couple. Mike can’t inspire his students the way he used to, and a traumatized Kristen spends her time listing all the places she sees Charlie throughout her day: on the street, on the subway, in his little school when she passes his friends, in the grocery store, everywhere…. but alas, every time she gets closer, she realizes it’s not him. Maybe she should cut back on the hallucinogens.
Mike has become obsessed with finding his son in his own way. He constantly pesters the detectives who head up Charlie’s case, accusing them of being lazy, often giving them pointers on how to do their jobs. He begins going out daily and posting ‘MISSING CHILD’ signs all around what is supposed to be New York City.
Looks like they use the same subway system in New York as they do in Toronto, though.
Things really start to get crazy when Cage begins to have visions of his son. He sees him on a public bus, still dressed in the same Halloween costume despite being kidnapped/missing for almost a year. He chases the bus down, only to discover Charlie’s seat to be empty once he gets closer. But the vision may not have been a wild goose chase. The bus pulls away, revealing nearby graffiti that intrigues him. Pay the Ghost is written on the wall of an old abandoned subway tunnel.
Investigating further, Cage finds a group of crazy homeless people in the tunnels, who all answer to a blind man. A spooky, ‘spirit’ noise scares startles everyone, and the homeless people promptly put out their fires – a ritual the blind man claims keeps the ghosts at bay, especially near Halloween. Cage asks them about the graffiti he saw, what pay the ghost might mean, and he gets a very thorough and comprehensive answer in return.
“Just what it says, I guess.”
Kristen begins to have visions of Charlie too, and soon finds herself believing her husband’s insane stories. So together they call in a psychic, who promptly dies while looking around the boy’s bedroom for clues. Specifically, the official cause of death is later deemed to be spontaneously combustion from the inside out. Kristen and Mike are immediately suspects following this unusual death in their home. It’s just one ridiculous weak narrative strand after another.
It gets more absurd when the pair finally begin to get some real answers. Cage wakes up the night before Halloween to find Kristen sitting upright on the bed, pale and quivering. She appears possessed as she cuts symbols into her own skin. Thanks to these symbols, the film finally finds a narrative drive with more substance than aimlessly looking for a missing child with no clues other than those three ridiculous titular words.
Investigating the symbols takes them to a pagan ritual in New York, where allegedly, the first Halloween in the United States ever took place. Children sacrifice dolls to a fire, so that a ghost called ‘The Crone’ won’t take them on Halloween night the way Charlie was. When Kristen and Mike show the symbol to an exposition queen attending the ritual, the last hour of this nonsensical film is finally given context. The markings on Kristen’s arm is the crone’s symbol. When the crone was alive, she saw her three children burned at a stake before being killed herself. Now each year on Halloween, the door between two worlds- living and dead – is temporarily opened and the crone requires an offering, a payment, of three children from the living world to replace her own sons.
The following year, as Halloween nears, there is a brief period where the door between worlds opens again and the children that were taken can reach out to be rescued. For some reason, only the children taken the year prior have the eligibility to be saved. So if Mike and Kristen can’t infiltrate the ghost world and get their son back before the end of Halloween night, their chances of seeing Charlie again are gone forever. A most convenient way to add a ticking clock.
I’ve noticed a surprising amount of similarities between this film and another Nicolas Cage vehicle, The Wicker Man. Now while the latter is a very popular movie, I have to wonder if Cage realizes people like it for all the wrong reasons. Did Nicholas Cage mistake all of The Wicker Man mocking for success? Other than for money, of course, why else would he take on a project so obviously similar? Let me break it down. In both films, Nicholas Cage searches for a son/daughter that has mysteriously vanished, and may never have existed at all. They both contain pagan rituals and a bizarre old fashioned cults. The climax of both films have the looming threat of someone being burned alive for some greater cause.
Early on, the film also
rips off pays homage to Stanley Kubrick’s classic, The Shining, with a tracking shot sequence following a young boy as he cycles around a narrow hallway.
Anyway: SPOILER ALERT (as if you care) – In the end, Cage enters the other world through the gate the homeless people were guarding. He manages to rescue his son, as well as the two other children who were taken the year before. I suppose those other parents didn’t care as much to save their own damn kids. In the final moments, Charlie returns home with no memory of the year that has transpired. I can’t help but think that kid will be pretty messed up from that, considering at some point he missed a birthday and isn’t aware he’s a year older than he thinks. All his friends from school would have moved up a grade by now, won’t he notice that?
Not surprisingly, a lot of loose ends are left looming over our heads as the credits roll. Did Nicholas Cage’s character ever learn to put family before work? Yes, he went through a lot to rescue his son. But the early scenes focus so heavily on how bad he is as a father, it’s amazing the ending doesn’t address any change. It’s also not clear whether or not the crone was defeated permanently, or if they just rescued the three kids from the year before. In the long run, rescuing three kids seems pretty insignificant if the ghost accepts a payment of three children every year for the last three hundred years. Maybe they thought there’d be a sequel.
Finally, in case it isn’t obvious enough, I’d recommend against watching this one. With the exception of the early classroom scene, there isn’t a whole lot of Nic Cage eccentricities and the movie is a little dull overall. It’s not as fun as the absurd title would suggest, sadly.