At the outset of Pay The Ghost, young Charlie (Jack Fulton) is scared of what he sees lurking just outside his bedroom window, and responds, as children in horror movies do, by making a creepy drawing of the shadowy figure. But Charlie should really be more frightened that his dad is played by Nicolas Cage, which at this particular point in time automatically exposes him to all manners of low-rent peril. Making matters worse, Mike Lawford (Cage) is an English professor who seems to specialize in the literature of creepy portent. It can’t surprise anyone that when Mike takes his son to a street fair on Halloween night, Charlie disappears into thin air—though Kristen (Sarah Wayne Callies), Charlie’s mom and Mike’s wife, still gets pretty pissed about it. A year later, the now-estranged couple reunites when Mike starts getting visions of his lost son, soon becoming convinced that he’s uncovered a supernatural epidemic of Halloween child disappearances all across the fair city of New York (played here by another, less talented city—possibly Toronto).
About that city: Not every movie set in New York perfectly captures life there, but Pay The Ghost uses its chosen setting with a particularly cloudy eye for detail, including a college campus that seems to be quiet, expansive, and yet located somewhere in midtown Manhattan; a large two-story home for Mike and his family that should flag them all as millionaires; and a Halloween street fair that seems to be taking place over three enclosed blocks in a back alley, rather than Greenwich Village. A charitable explanation would be that the movie uses an off-brand New York to create an uncanny feeling of disorientation and displacement, but the rest of Pay The Ghost doesn’t bear that out, unless the way that Mike’s receipt of a tenure letter at work inexplicably causes him to arrive home hours late is supposed to be part of a larger, clumsily evoked dream logic.
No, the movie’s B-movie flimsiness is pervasive, and paired with an overall lack of B-movie flair, though director Uli Edel makes some game yarn-spinning attempts. Briefly, Mike and Kristen visit other parents who experienced similar child losses, and the idea of an amateur investigation of supernatural experiences holds some promise. So does the story’s folktale roots, which quaintly position Halloween as a spooky, menacing day, and result in one memorable image: a field of ghostly children, stretching into the distance, drained of their natural color. But too much of Pay The Ghost (up to and including a nonsensical mid-credits faux-shocker) consists of its characters flailing through the motions of supernatural encounters. The movie stays on the amusing side of lousy but never crosses over into good.
It’s no longer surprising that Cage turns up in marginally released thrillers well below his considerable levels of talent, but this one nonetheless feels slightly out of step with his most recent bumper crop. The child endangerment is consistent with the likes of Rage and Stolen, but the supernatural angle fits closer with the occult weirdness of his Sorcerer’s Apprentice/Season Of The Witch/Drive Angry run from a few years ago, while the brief, quasi-academic investigations of historical symbols recalls the National Treasure series. In another timeline, then, this might look like a greatest hits of Cage’s B-movie side. Instead, it’s like a ghost of his former career, floating through the ether as he decides on his next phase.