Thursday, October 8, 2015

Pay the Ghost (2015)

During a Halloween parade, Charlie (Jack Fulton), the seven year old son of academic Mike Lawford (Nicolas Cage) disappears without a trace after saying something about “paying the ghost”.

With the first anniversary of his disappearance closing in, Charlie is still missing. Mike and his wife Kristen (Sarah Wayne Callies) have separated, and Mike’s still – understandably – obsessing about what happened to his son, making himself an annoyance to the detective on the case (Lyriq Bent), and spending a lot of time in front of the traditional newspaper clip and photo wall every obsessed person and every serial killer in the movies calls his own. Maybe, Mike’s even going crazy, for he is beginning to have visions of his son, seeing what might be signs pointing him in the direction of a supernatural solution to the mystery.

In fact, the evidence for the supernatural is piling up so fast, soon Kristen, Mike’s work BFF (Veronica Ferres), and even the detective begin to believe.

Horror movies made for a mainstream audience are blessed and cursed by the fact they aren’t made for a genre-savvy audience: blessed, because they don’t have to go through the rituals of fanservice and might just look at old ideas from a different perspective; cursed, because they might not realize they are actually walking well-trodden paths, and because they aren’t allowed to dig as deeply into certain uncomfortable zones as their core genre siblings.

Uli Edel’s adaptation of a Tim Lebbon novella is more an example for the curse than for the blessing (well, it’s a horror movie after all), because boy does it avoid to actually dig into the emotional horror that losing a child must be for a parent, instead keeping to the middle-ground of okay melodrama where even the most hurtful things don’t make the people they happen to actually unattractive, and where obsessions are so mild, they can be expressed by a man posting flyers and getting slightly miffed with a cop. The film’s acting the same way when it comes to the treatment of horrible things happening to children too, never actually stopping and thinking what a series of yearly disappearances and murders of three children over centuries in the same area actually means. And no, it isn’t being subtle, it’s just avoiding the horrifying as much as it possible can.

In fact, the script is so tepid when it comes to these things, the film can count itself lucky it does at least have Nicolas Cage, who is at the same time doing his utmost to not play a cartoon character as per his more usual and really putting more effort in than the script deserves, making the film feel much more alive and human than it has any right to be. I had forgotten how good Cage can be at this sort of thing.

The rest of the cast – including Stephen McHattie in a minor role with big dreadlocks which alone would make the film worth watching at least once – is rather good too. They also just aren’t given much to get their teeth into. It’s all very professional, and competent, but totally lacking in anything comparable to actual human emotions or actions.

Uli Edel’s direction does little to help things into a more interesting (or, you know, creepy) direction – it’s slick, it’s competent, and it completely fails at making anything here resonate emotionally. He’s also just not very good at managing scare scenes, the film ending up completely unable to even stage a simple jump scare effectively, much less turn what should be the film’s moments of actual horror into anything else than a mild repetition of visual motives we all have seen in better films. It’s all very tasteful, at least, except for the finale when things become utterly ridiculous, but good taste can only get you so far with a film that by all rights should be about horrible things happening to people who not at all deserve them.

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