Pay the Ghost Review
Hitchcock used to compare cinema to a slice of cake. There is undoubtedly a valid parallel to make between the elements of a movie and ingredients used in a recipe or a cocktail. And if this sometimes allow to create masterpieces, when you mix several elements that could work well individually, you can also end up with something unsavoury like Pay the Ghost...
One year after Mike Lawford's young son disappeared during a Halloween carnival, he is haunted by eerie images and terrifying messages he can't explain. Together with his estranged wife, he will stop at nothing to unravel the mystery and find their son-and, in doing so, he unearths a legend that refuses to remain buried in the past.
Let’s be clear, Pay the Ghost is basically a cocktail of elements seen before in other supernatural thriller: urban legend’s bogeyman (Candyman), creepy kid (The Shining), possession (Insidious) to cite only the most obvious ones. Even if you can clearly see a will from the filmmakers to distinguish themselves from these movies and classic genre elements, for instance with the treatment of the customary medium character or the intriguing idea of using vultures in an urban environment, these few new elements do not allow the movie to acquire its own personality.
Worst, in some instances, the desire of Tim Lebbon (adapting his own novella with Timber Falls’s screenwriter Dan Kay) to differentiate his story becomes so apparent that it actually emphasises on the similarities between Pay the Ghost and other bogeyman/possession movies. As a result, you cannot prevent yourself from thinking that this is just an opportunistic enterprise destined to use a very popular moment of the year and try to create something new with the same old clichés used in cinema for the last 50 years.
This could have been overcome by a talented director at the helm, what John Carpenter for example managed to do with his recent The Ward. Unfortunately, Uli Edel, who recently made a comeback with its Oscar nominated The Baader Meinhof Complex (Best Foreign Language Film) but who mainly has a string of TV movies to his credit and the 1993 Madonna vehicle Body of Evidence, is definitely not John Carpenter and he is not really capable to infuse Pay the Ghost with any sense of personality either.
It’s a shame because Pay the Ghost actually starts reasonably well with a rather short and intriguing pre credit scene set in 1679 New York which doesn’t give away any obvious element of the plot and still manages to catch the interest of the audience. This scene is followed by a very nice suspense build up with the introduction of Charlie in the middle of the night. There are also some appealing aerial shots of the Lawford’s house showed in contrast with the big surrounding city to emphasise their feeling of isolation and oppression.
On this particular aspect, I thought that setting the movie in New York was also a very good idea as the city that never sleeps was key in creating several landmarks in the supernatural thriller genre such as Rosemary’s Baby. The problem here is that the movie was actually not shot in New York but in Toronto and you can unfortunately feel it. It is quite recurrent in recent low budget genre productions to use the Canadian city to pass as New York and it is never really successful, even more so when the city is supposed to play an important role in the story. Overall, you get a sense of frustration and you can sometimes glimpse a different, far more interesting, movie in this wasted mess.
One aspect which manages to save Pay the Ghost is undeniably its main actors who both give a strong interpretation, especially Nicolas Cage. It’s really a shame that the Oscar winner’ career has taken a recent odd turn with great movies (Kick-Ass, the underrated Knowing or Joe) rubbing shoulders with interesting attempts with prestigious directors (Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans or Paul Schrader’s Dying of the Light) and Direct-to-videos (Tokarev, Outcast or Left Behind). In Pay the Ghost, he perfectly manages to make the audience feel his despair, after his son’s disappearance, and to make his obsession in finding him palpable. I really hope that he manages to restore his acting reputation with exciting projects like Oliver Stone’s Snowden or Paul Schrader’s Dog Eat Dog. In a role usually sacrificed, Sarah Wayne Callie also manages to create a fleshy character which give a good counterpart to Mike’s obsession.
Also to be noted is the very effective score of the movie composed by Joseph LoDuca ( The Evil Dead and its two sequels but also the great score for Christophe Gans’ Brotherhood of the Wolves) which includes a delightfully creepy Celtic-influenced nursery rhyme.
Pay the Ghost is released by Arrow disc on blu-ray on 26th October, right on time for Halloween.
The movie looks good on blu-ray with a clear image and a nice color rendering. There are some really nice shot in the movie which are beautifully rendered by the disc as well.
The audio track sounded a bit smothered but was globally clear. I could not notice anything detrimental to the vision of the movie. There are no subtitles available.
On the bonus side, Arrow Films has only included a behind the scenes featurette (14 min). Sarah Wayne Callies, Nicholas Cage and Craig Flores (Producer) discuss the story, the cast, the director Uli Edel (in particular why he was chosen for the job and how he treated the movie) and independent films (in relation to the use of cinematographer Sharone Meir (Whiplash) who shot the movie. There is also some nice on-set footage.