Monday, February 22, 2016

Review: PAY THE GHOST (2015) [Joe's Take]

When a young boy disappears, his distraught father begins to suspect that the culprit is a ghost witch!

In Pay the Ghost, Nicholas Cage is Mike Lawford, a good occult literature professor and a lousy dad. It’s Halloween and his son, Charlie, desperately wants to carve a pumpkin with him. But in his excitement at receiving his tenure notification, Mike is five hours late to carve pumpkins and trick-or-treat.

To atone, Mike takes Charlie to the street carnival, where Charlie is abducted by the ghost witch.

Until this point, the ghost has been indicating that it’s going to take Charlie. It shows up at his window and frightens him, and its humongous vulture pet stalks him during the day. Charlie mentions this to his parents, but the things he says aren’t very specific. For example, when a pterodactyl-sized vulture stalks him from a rooftop, Charlie unhelpfully asks his parents “Hey, did you guys see that bird?”

And when he sees the charred specter of an undead witch hovering outside his window, he says “There was something outside my window.”

Charlie needs to work on his adjectives, is what I’m saying. In the case of the ghost, any of these would have helped:

  • Burned
  • Angry
  • Screaming
  • Undead
  • Frightening
  • Super-fast 
  • Of Vengeance

Put it all together with ‘Something’ and you’ve got ‘Burned, angry, screaming, undead, frightening, super-fast something of vengeance,’ and Dad probably could have figured out the ghost part himself. He is, after all, an occult literature professor.

Anyway, Charlie's abduction is effectively foreshadowed when Mike is introduced as a professor, and is reading from Goethe’s Der Erlkonig:

“The father now gallops, with terror half wild,
He grasps in his arms the poor shuddering child;
He reaches his courtyard with toil and with dread, –
The child in his arms finds he motionless, dead.”

So you know Charlie is going to get it, or rather ‘it’ is going to get him. But, you also assume that the screenwriter will play with this expectation and somehow surprise you. Five minutes later, Charlie is ordering ice cream with his dad, he sees a vulture, he cryptically asks “Can we pay the ghost?” And poof! He’s gone.

From there, Pay the Ghost fast forwards 362 days to October 28, three days before the next Halloween. Mike has his obligatory wall of obsession, it’s covered with all sorts of maps and pictures and news stories, like so:

But given what you know of the case, there probably should just be a picture of Charlie, a piece of paper that says ‘???’, and maybe some underpants, because there were no witnesses, and the only one who knows anything is Mike himself.

When Mike goes to the police station to harass the detective assigned to Charlie’s case, the detective reasonably points out the fact that “You’re the last person to be seen with your son.”

Good point! Shot fired! But when Mike fires back that the detective is lazy, the detective produces a large file and slams it on the desk!

“Lazy? This is Charlie’s file, Mike.”

BABAM! For a case with almost no possible evidence, that is a lot!

“And this is just what’s on paper. Computer’s got at least 20 times that!!”

Until this point, I wasn't sure that this was a super authentic police interaction, but then I realized there could be 20 times the authenticity just waiting on that PC!

In the next scene, Mike is putting up missing persons posters, when he sees his son on a bus that’s speeding away. He chases down the bus and boards it, but of course Charlie isn’t there.

When he gets off the bus, he sees this:

Holy smokes! Evidence! It’s 'Pay the ghost' spray-painted on an abandoned industrial building! When Mike investigates he finds a homeless colony, and you assume that there will probably be a wizened old hobo who knows all about the ghost. Right on cue, that guy shows up!

But before he can introduce himself, a ghostly wail fills the hobo camp! Mike asks “What was that?” And the blind hobo answers “Nobody knows. She always comes out just before Halloween.” And then Mike asks him “What does 'pay the ghost' mean? I saw it written outside.”

Even though the hobo is blind, he helpfully lights a torch for Mike and says “Come with me!” Then he leads Mike to this wall:

Mike is clearly impressed, but again he asks “What does it mean?” And the hobo says one of the following things. See if you can tell witch, I mean, which:

a. Just what it says, I guess.
b. You mean it’s not a drawing of a kitten in a top hat? I was told that was what it was.
c. It’s a Celtic tradition where children throw dolls on bonfires in order to trick a vengeful ghost into thinking they died, and won’t steal them on Halloween, in payment for her children who were burned at the stake by overzealous 17th-century New Englanders.
d. It probably has something to do with the portal to the spirit world that is right around the corner. Here, let me show that to you. You should definitely see that.

And the answer is... A! The hobo doesn't say any of the other stuff, and then, confounded, Mike leaves!

This whole scene puts the detective's Computer of Evidence x20 into perspective. Maybe there is actually a ton of evidence on that computer, maybe this MOVIE is on that computer, but they still can’t figure anything out. I’ve seen Pay the Ghost twice now, and while I have a pretty good grasp of “What” is going on, I’m struggling with “How," while constantly asking myself “Why?”

To the hobo's credit, he probably makes Mike leave because he sees that the evil ghost is eavesdropping on their conversation:

But if that’s the case, why doesn’t he lead Mike out of range and say something like “Sorry about that. There was a terrifying spirit right behind you! Anyway… 'Pay the Ghost.' You know what, I don’t know who wrote that there, because I’m blind. Can’t see things! But, I know everyone here, so we can figure it out together!”

Why doesn’t Mike follow up on the unknown wailing specter that appears just before Halloween at that location? Doesn’t that seem like it might be connected to the whole “Pay the Ghost” concept?

And why doesn’t the hobo mention the bridge to the netherworld where the ghost witch lives?

“Wait,” you say, “There’s a bridge to the netherworld where the ghost witch lives, and the hobo knows about it?” Indeed! But it takes the entire second half of the movie for Mike to realize he should ask the hobo how to find the ghost that hangs out in the abandoned building with "Pay the Ghost" written all over the walls.

After Mike leaves the hobo, he tries to convince his wife that their child is speaking to them from the dead, but she’s not having it. Until the very next scene, when their child speaks to her from the dead. Then she’s on board!

They call in a medium, they investigate the parents of other missing children, they find a Celtic club’s annual “Pay the Ghost” party, and they consult a map of early 17th-century New York, and it all leads them back…to the abandoned building that is haunted by a ghost, and has "Pay the Ghost" written all over the walls!

***At this point in the review, Joe closes his eyes and rubs his face with his hands while sighing***

The frustrating thing (among like 20 other frustrating things on this computer!) is all the work the kid has to do. Despite the fact that he failed to adequately describe the ghost witch when he was alive, he successfully leads his dad to the hobo camp with the spirit bridge, he convinces mom that he’s real, he carves the appropriate Celtic rune clue into mom’s arm (leading them to the Celtic school teacher who reveals the entire backstory of the ghost witch), and he ultimately saves his dad.

This would all be fine, except his dad is a paranormal literature expert! He is a professional connoisseur of ghost stories, who finds himself in a ghost story!

He should have called the ghost on the phone, and given her the “I don’t know who you are” speech from Taken, and then he and the ghost should have gone to war!

Instead, the climax is set up like an Amazing Race challenge. Mike has to get across the spirit bridge, into the spooky shack, lift a bunch of stones off the cellar door, then find the three living children among the hundreds of ghost children, then lead the living children BACK across the bridge in under a half an hour! And his only tool is a flashlight that was given to him by (who else?) the blind guy.

Anyway, Mike saves the kids, the ghost witch is vanquished, and everyone lives happily ever after. Or do they?! Because…


The ghost witch isn’t finished! In the very last scene, it is revealed that she has possessed someone! Can you tell which of the three supporting characters she chooses to possess at the end of the film? Is it:

a. The Detective

b. The Hideously Impaled Professor

C. The Ice Cream Vendor

It should obviously be the ice cream vendor, because she who possesses the ice cream vendor possesses the ice cream! But no, the award for most unintentionally hilarious possession goes to…

The Impaled Professor! In the above picture, her eyes are opening with possession, and probably instant regret. This major tactical error sets up at least two sequels, including

Pay the Ghost 2: Help the Ghost!
Pay the Ghost 3: The Ghost Still Needs Help, Please

So, questions for Paul:

1. At one point, Mike sits down with Kristen in front of his huge wall of evidence and says “I’ve been doing some research…” And he pulls out a laptop. Why doesn’t he direct her attention to the wall of research? Is that even a wall of research?

PH: It's a pretty good wall of research, but you've got to think there's twenty times that on the computer, obv.  I love walls of research, though, because it's the only way to make research look as hard as it feels.  It's so arts-and-craftsy and probably had Lawford running down to the local hobby store all the time, if not for yarn then for the "unhinged wall of research class" in which they show you how to tie the yarn to thumbtacks.  In a year, Lawford probably didn't have time to get to the advanced classes: "When Four Walls are Not Enough: Ceilings of Research," "No Cracks in This Crack-Pot: Using Gloss Laminate to Preserve Your Incoherent Newspaper Clippings" and "Does your Wall of Research Need a Broken Mirror?  It Might!"  

2. You're a ghost expert professor! If you had to battle the ghost of a 17th century witch, how would you arm yourself?

PH:  In my "expert" opinion, what you need to defeat a witch is a fanatical community of religious people who believe that they alone have been chosen to be saved by God and that the Bible is an unerring and literally true testament of God ("Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" Exodus 22:18).  Errr.  Wait.  Overzealous Christians is how you defeat innocent, non-witches by accusing them of being witches and then killing them.

So, to defeat a real witch?  Jeez, I don't know.  I guess if it's a real witch then you have to rethink that whole, innocent non-witch thing, which means going back to Increase "The Witchinator" Mather and seeing what he says. . .

*crafts wall of research*
*finds twenty times that research on the computer*

. . . ok, so did you know that Increase, in advising the Salem judges in "Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits" (1693), only had two criteria by which a person could be judged a witch?  1.  Confession, 2.  Two or more people would have to witness the witch doing witchy type stuff.  But neither quite help us out here--this is just helpful if we don't know who is blighting our crops or sickening our sheep.  But if the witch is up in your face?

Well if we're now going to believe that the three girls of Salem--Elizabeth Williams, Ann Putnam, and Abigail Williams--were telling the truth . . . but come on, it's really hard to trust 12-year old Abigail who starts this whole thing. One of her signs of possession was that she was "sometimes making as if she would fly, stretching up her Arms as high as she could, and crying, Whish, Whish, Whish, several times" (Mather, "A Further Account" (1693)).  Can you imagine if every time a kid pretended to fly by stretching out their arms and saying "whish," we looked around, found the nearest adult, and hung them?

Anyway, if we're going to believe them, then the best way to defeat a witch is to tell on them.  Just go to your mom or dad and say, "That's a witch!"  Then just let the Manitowoc Sheriff's Department handle the rest.

3. How did the ghost know to kill the professor? Did she also have a wall of research?

PH:  I can't even remember why the witch kills her. *re-watches said scene*  Oh right, there is no reason.  Her wall of research led her astray!  She could probably use a refresher course: "Just Paint Over It: Deleting Mistakes in your Wall of Research."

4. Why was the hobo so helpful with lighting implements, but so unhelpful otherwise?

PH:  Yeah, the hobo.  I thought he was supposed to be Charon, the ferryman to the underworld, but that would mix the mythology, and furthermore Charon was supposed to have really bright, piercing eyes (thank you wikipedia).  So I don't know. . . But I should note that this film is based on a novella by the really wonderful horror writer Tim Lebbon.  Early on, I thought that I would read the novella and compare it with the film, because I just have a feeling that it might have been focus grouped to death.  But the novella is only available on a web-reader, and that involves downloading and installing some "free" software, and sometimes it all just gets to be too much.

5. Why was the witch friends with the vultures? Wouldn't they have a contentious relationship? Wouldn't they always be...picking on her? Teeheehee, *snort*

PH:  Interesting question Joe.  Did you know that a group of vultures, while resting in trees, is called a committee, but in flight is called a kettle?  And when the group is feeding, it's called a wake?  This computer has like twenty times the amount of research on vultures than my wall does!  But it doesn't tell me what to call a group of vultures hanging out with a witch.  Maybe something like a committee, but evil and scavenging.  Like a committee on assessment practices?  Oh man, that's so perfect: what do you call of group of vultures that are friends with a witch?  An assessment.  An assessment of vultures.  That's what.

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