Pay The Ghost
"Manages to hold onto its eerie tone quite successfully."

From Dearest to Never Let Go, there have been a lot of missing child films this year. Nicolas Cage has, or course, previously played a child kidnapper (in Raising Arizona), but he's in a very different mode in this angsty New York tale. It's Halloween in the city and young Charlie (Jack Fulton) has been begging his dad to take him to the carnival. It seems harmless enough, so off they go, but whilst Mike (Cage) is buying snacks, Charlie vanishes. His mysterious last words: "Did you pay the ghost?"

A year later, Mike and his partner (Sarah Wayne Callies' Kristen) have separated; he's living in a tiny apartment, just about managing to hold down his job as a lecturer, and spending every spare waking moment searching for his son. Like any parent in that situation, he keeps thinking that he sees or hears him in crowds when he's out and about, but lately it's been happening more often, seeming more real. Then he sees the slogan pay the ghost painted on a wall, and he finds himself on a journey from which there is no turning back.

Copy picture

From the outset, Pay The Ghost is full of creepy little bits and pieces, from shifting shapes in the shadows to a giant vulture that swoops around the rooftops looking like an escapee from a Time Burton film (one would have expected a crow but it seems they decided to go one louder). Its anchor, however, lies in the downbeat performances of the leads, which keep it feeling real as the supernatural aspect builds. Despite their separation, Mike and Kristen have obvious shared concerns, and she is drawn back into his life as he seeks to gather evidence. The more he learns, the more he comes to suspect that he might still be able to save his boy - but it also becomes apparent that if this is true, he's running out of time.

The problem for the film is that this is as far as its emotional arc goes. That's understandable for the central couple, whose single mindedness makes perfect sense in the circumstances, but it doesn't work in the context of the wider story or the audience's relationship to it. Charlie is not the only child to have gone missing and the impact of the wider story is undermined by the film's limited focus. The final scenes are particularly problematic here, with secondary characters we have been rooting for just forgotten about - yes, we know the broad outline of their fate, but we don't get any closure.

After a dramatic start, Pay The Ghost ambles along slowly, establishing character and gradually building up tension before gathering pace for a rapid final third. It manages to hold onto its eerie tone quite successfully through these shifts and builds in its own local mythology without mangling the older myths too badly (perhaps because it's based on a story by an English author). There are interesting ideas here around the multicultural palimpsest that is New York society and whilst it might have been nice to see them developed further, they help to provide rich background texture to what might otherwise have been quite a flat tale.

Pay The Ghost never quite becomes the thriller that it hopes to be, but it's an effective spooky ghost story, and there are relatively few of those around.

Reviewed on: 25 Oct 2015
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A man whose young son has disappeared gradually uncovers a terrible secret as he searches for him.

Director: Uli Edel

Writer: Dan Kay, based on the short story by Tim Lebbon.

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Veronica Ferres, Lyriq Bent, Lauren Beatty, Kalie Hunter, Jack Fulton, Stephen McHattie

Year: 2015

Runtime: 94 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Canada


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