‘Pay the Ghost’? The deal has Nicolas Cage and atmospheric dread, but some problems too

Actor Nicolas Cage

Actor Nicolas Cage

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

In “Pay the Ghost,” Nicolas Cage and Sarah Wayne Callies play spouses estranged since the disappearance of their young son while trick-or-treating on Halloween, and though a year has passed since Charlie (Jack Fulton) vanished, college professor Mike (Cage) continues to pass along his latest conspiracy theories to a detective (Lyriq Bent).

Police have treated this as a missing-persons case, despite all the ravens hovering overhead suggesting that they follow another lead: Charlie complained about a shadow outside his window and proceeded to draw it for his art class. He asked, “Dad, did we pay the ghost?” before he was gone in 60 seconds. Since then, his beloved scooter scoots all by itself.

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Like so many of Cage’s films made in the last five years, “Pay the Ghost” seems to be aimed at audiences overseas, where he may be a more viable box-office draw. British author Tim Lebbon’s short story that serves as the basis for the film appeared in the anthology “October Dreams:A Celebration of Halloween.” Although the film preserves the premise, its release has been timed more than a month ahead of Halloween. (Despite being passable as a studio movie, “Pay the Ghost” will be available as video-on-demand on the same day it hits theaters.)

The story hints at the depth of its literary roots, with an elaborate exposition drawing on Halloween’s Celtic origin and the tradition’s propagation in the colonial settlements of 1679 New York. But none of this is explored in depth in the film, something that would have enhanced Mike’s character development given his academic background.

Whatever research Lebbon and screenwriter Dan Kay might have undertaken ultimately comes off like the product of a historical walking tour of New York. Other details don’t add up: A struggling academic who just got tenure, Mike inexplicably lives with his family in a two-story brownstone in Lower Manhattan that only millionaires could afford. If he does come from wealth, why not consider ransom as a possible motive for Charlie’s abduction?

Mike is supposed to be a suspect in the investigation, but the film isn’t entirely convincing about this, either. To be fair, Cage is convincing, for the most part. (As Mike confers with a colleague, Cage does seem like he’s merely feeding her lines.)

Tidbits that would make the film interesting have been squandered. Instead, we get the standard-issue haunted-house fodder. The ghosts manifest in so many different ways that it seems like the movie is grasping for straws.

Director Uli Edel, whose filmography ranges from the Oscar-nominated foreign-language film “The Baader Meinhof Complex” to the Madonna disaster “Body of Evidence,” credibly creates the atmospheric dread. But that can go only so far.


“Pay the Ghost”

MPAA rating: None.

Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.

Playing: AMC Burbank Town Center 8. Also on VOD.