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Pay the Ghost | Review

All Sallow’s Eve: Edel Gets Stuck in the Cage

Uli Edel Pay the Ghost PosterFor those who had a modicum of hope that German director’s Uli Edel‘s Canadian production of Nicolas Cage horror thriller Pay the Ghost would be more serviceable than its inane title would suggest, abandon hope all ye who enter here. Based on a novella by Tim Lebbon and adapted by Dan Kay (who last penned the 2007 indie yokel horror film Timber Falls), it’s one of those unfortunate genre cheapies that takes itself too seriously to be appreciated even for a bit of camp value—a missed opportunity considering Cage is headlining.

A supernatural thriller whose title actually succinctly implies everything the next ninety minutes will be devoted to explaining, a hungry entity wreaks havoc on New York City and its outlying regions on an annual basis, choosing everyone’s favorite pagan holiday, Halloween, to snatch innocent tots from the clutches of their parents during the traditional trick or treat revelries. Surprisingly, these demonic entities are unaware of the aching predictability of supernatural Halloween antics, and considering this film satisfies every comprehensible trope known to mankind on such subjects, it seems those behind the making of the film have spent precious little time watching horror films.

In 1679 New York, children lurk beneath the floorboards as their mother is terrorized up above. But their muffed cries are heard by the malevolent invading forces and they are seized. Moments later, we’re in present day, and university professor Mike (Cage) is babbling to an appreciative student audience on Goethe. A beloved educator, he neglects loving wife Kristen (Sarah Wayne Callies) and son Charlie (Jack Fulton) to the extent he can’t even make it home in time to carve a pumpkin with his kid. But, on the bright side, he just got tenure, making all that missed family time worthwhile.

Arriving home too late to participate in this year’s gathering of candy in costume, Mike offers to take Charlie around the corner to a busy carnival just before bedtime. However, that creepy, foreboding computer generated vulture that’s been eyeing Charlie from rooftop precipices all day at last becomes activated, and right after uttering the phrase ‘pay the ghost,’ the boy disappears. Frantic, Mike searches for his son, but neither he nor the police can find him. A year passes, Mike and Kristen divorce, but he begins to suspect something supernatural is afoot. Seeing the titular phrase spray painted on buildings, Mike begins to have visions, of which he tries to convince Kristen. Eventually, he unearths the culprit spirit, a woman who was burned at the stake in 1679 and returns every year on Halloween to nab children and harbor their meaty little souls. Mike must confront the spirit to find Charlie.

Edel, whose 2008 film The Baader Meinhof Complex was nominated for Best Foreign Language film, wildly fluctuates in quality between his more notable projects. Earlier in his career, Edel adapted an excellent version of Hubert Selby, Jr. with Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989), but followed that with the woebegone Madonna/Willem Dafoe thriller Body of Evidence (1993). But at least Madonna and all her candle wax gave us something to laugh about. Besides a bit of over-the-top acting from Callies, who suffers a psychotic break mere hours after the disappearance of her kid, Pay the Ghost is a veritable flat line.

Sadly, this is DoP Sharone Meir’s first theatrical release post-Whiplash (2014), though the film’s lack of credible special effects is enough to distract from whatever else is going on with the film’s visual cues. Incredibly tedious, even for those who can appreciate Cage’s less enthusiastic turn, Pay the Ghost is the cinematic equivalent of a Hostess snack cake—plastic coated with a dubious veneer of real ingredients.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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