Sunday, February 28, 2016

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

Nicholas Cage plays a recently tenured English professor who lectures about the literature of horror.  I happen to be an English professor who recently received tenure and who often lectures about the literature of horror.  Nicholas Cage is playing me!  I knew he'd get around to it at some point. . .

I started this film like a model student:  front-row center, books read and marked with thoughtful marginal notes, notebook open to a blank page, pen clicking in anticipation just ready, you know, ready for this class.  But by the end I was that other kind of student:  slouching almost impossibly horizontal in the back of the room, bereft of books of any kind, vacantly staring and maybe drooling a little bit despondently, twiddling lazily with my cell phone, too disaffected to even make fun of the kids who are trying.  What happened?

The problem is that Pay the Ghost is an inert lump, less an enthralling professor leading you on a learning adventure, and more a potato with glasses set on a podium.  Every once in awhile, without warning, it screams at you, startling you enough to jump, but not enough to forget that it’s just a tater professor and that this class is really boring. 

The story begins with Nicholas Cage’s character, Lawford, worried about getting tenure.  He’s spending lots of time at the library, anxious that he just has to publish one more article.  His wife is upset that he’s coming home late from the library (yet not so upset that she won’t engage in a wincingly awful sex scene that could pass, out of context, as a man discovering that he has testicular cancer).  

He lectures on Goethe, mentions Lovecraft and Poe, and then gives his money line: “these writers were all joined by one common purpose: to scare the living shit out of you!”  And the students all titter because, gosh, our professor is so cool.  And then he says “Happy Halloween,” and the students fucking applaud!  For the end of a weekday lecture!  He’s a student whisperer! 

If this regularly happens in other professors’ classes, nobody tell me.

When Lawford finds out that he got tenure, instead of calling his wife, the first thing he does is go see his bombshell Scandinavian colleague who is dusting a piece of wood—could there be intrigue brewing?  What exactly was he checking out at the library all those late nights? 

The next we see Lawford, he is at home, and, having totally blanked on going trick-or-treating with his kid (too much dusting with the Scandinavian?), he makes up for it by taking him to the fair.  The kid goes missing at the fair, and the rest of the movie is about Lawford’s increasing belief that the kid was taken by a Celtic witch that has been haunting New York since 1679.  Eventually, [SPOILER ALERT] he locates the other dimension in a Manhattan building, he retrieves his kid and two other kids, and goes back to his loving wife.  Meanwhile the Scandinavian is thrown out of a window, and, in literally the last scene of the film, we see her being eaten by vultures.

Ending on the corpse of a totally dispensable character encapsulates what's wrong with Pay the Ghost.  Throughout the film lots of interesting story angles are just thrown out windows and left for carrion.  Rather than being a love interest that puts stress on Lawford’s family life, the Scandinavian turns out to be just a Platonic mentor who might as well have been played by some wizened Dumbledore type.  Likewise, the tenure decision could have been a looming institutional nightmare, further aggravating the father whose life is spinning out of control.  But nope, he gets tenure a hot second after he exclaims his worry about it.  The marital strife could have lasted longer: his wife won’t forgive him until she sees the kid’s scooter ghost-riding around the living room.  Then the wife takes him back immediately because, apparently, she was only mad at him for losing their child to a human kidnapper.  But who’s going to stop a supernatural 1679 witch-ghost?  Surely not the specialist in horror folklore and history!

But rather than wallow in the could-a-beens, let’s talk about Nicholas Cage!  Because, let’s face it, you’re going to watch this movie to see some genuine Cage overacting.  And he’s cast opposite Sarah Wayne Callies, who is no stranger to overacting herself.  Remarkably, they both keep it together most of the time . . . until the shining, brilliant, hallelujah exception when she confronts him over losing the kid. 

It’s acted exactly the way it would have been in an academy-award contender.  Setting: their apartment after the police have left after the fruitless night’s search.  The mother is an emotional wreck, still making the kid’s lunch for the next day (cleverly, this is all conveyed through the fact that she’s cutting the crust off a sandwich).  The father tries to comfort her and she blows up at him: “how do you let this happen?  Why didn’t you protect him!”  She walks out on him as he slowly crumples into a puddle of tears on the kitchen floor.  It might have really worked. . .

. . . had they not still been in their Halloween costumes.  He’s in a “Three Amigos” cowboy ensemble, and she’s a lady pirate.  It was an impossible task.  How heartbreaking would Sophie’s choice have been, I ask, if Meryl Streep had been in a giant robot costume?   Yet to Cage’s and Callies’s credit, they give it their 110%, which, of course, only exacerbates the effect.

Let’s put it this way.  If you were on an airplane, sort of half watching Pay the Ghost without earphones, musing absently, here is what you would see:

There’s a lady pirate! 

She's making a sandwich!  She must be hungry from all the swashbuckling. 

Uh oh, here comes a cowboy.  The cowboy wants her to stop making that sandwich.  Doesn’t she want to put some pastrami or roast beef on that?  He didn’t drive that cattle all that way for peanut butter!

Lady pirate doesn't want animal meat.  She loves PB&J soooo much she just can't even.  She's going to put it in a treasure chest and bury it.

The cowboy is distraught, just devastated.  She's left to bury the treasure in a place that can never be found without a treasure map.  And he never learned how to read maps! 

The end of the film is a mess, with Nicholas Cage walking to the underworld on a causeway somewhere in Manhattan.  There is one moment of genuine surprise: when Lawford’s kid asks whether they can save the other two children, Lawford turns, looks at the other two kids, waits a beat of consternation, and says, “There’s no time.”  There’s no time!  You’ll only slow us down.  Enjoy the rest of eternity in Celtic witch hell, kiddos!

But he saves them anyway, despite what his mouth said.  There are several moments like this, where the writing just seems lackadaisical (I am aware of the hypocrisy here).  For instance, a year after the kid is taken, Lawford breaks down, struck with the realization that: “Charlie would have been in 2nd grade.”  And when the Scandinavian reads aloud his tenure letter, she declaims, “Dear Professor Lawford,” and then immediately congratulates him.  Presumably for his successful receipt of a letter addressed to him. 

As a whole, the film is a slog and just isn’t very scary, despite the otherwise-breathtaking dedication to throwing a jump scare into nearly every scene.  Nicholas Cage looking at a wall?  Jump scare!  Dead psychic medium smoldering on the floor?  Jump scare!  Kid looking out a window?  Jump scare!  

How to sum this up?  Part of me wants to make the obvious joke about Cage getting paid while the ghost goes broke.  But I won’t do it!  It’s not funny!  Hold yourself to a higher standard, Paul, your students are losing interest!  What can I do to save this class? . . . wait, I got it!  YEAAGGHHH!  Jump scare!  [waits for applause]

Questions for Joe:

1.  Lawford not only wears his cowboy costume the whole night looking for his son, but also falls asleep in it on the couch.  Why doesn’t he take it off?  

JD: Usually when questions like this arise, it has to do with some unseen logistical hurdle the studio had to deal with. In this case, I suspect their costume shipment got mixed up with some other movie's, so they just had to be cowboys and pirates for awhile! 

2.  Due to a bunch of rules that I don’t care to explain, we know that Lawford saves the children before midnight on Halloween somewhere in downtown Manhattan.  Yet by the time he reaches home, it’s daylight.  Given that the sun rises at around 7:30 AM, why do you think it took over 7 hours for him to get home?

JD: Well Paul, when you send an English professor dad on an all-night road trip with three kooky kids who just spent a year in spiritual bondage, things are bound to get a little zany! The power of fun will compel you to see this summer's spooky spin-off, The Road Trip from Heck. 

3.  What happened to the intrepid police officer in the film? 

JD: The last we saw he was investigating the disappearance of a little girl at her mother's restaurant. While he and the mother were talking, the flames from one of the grills appeared to come alive and attack the chef! So, I assume that after that, he put 2 + 2 together and called the fire marshal on them.

4.  Can you have too many jump scares in one movie? 

JD: They need to be set up correctly, the way a boxer sets up a haymaker. The first couple should be jabs to inform the viewer that yes, jump scares are coming. Then you need a big jump scare with a cue in front of it, so that the audience thinks "Okay, when this one thing happens, a jump scare happens next." Then the next time, you present the cue, the audience tenses, you wait for them to relax, and then you come over the top with the scariest overhand haymaker you've got! 

The problem with Pay the Ghost is that they throw their best jump scare right off the bat, and follow up with weaker and weaker jump scares, and they never really take advantage of the creeping shadow = jump scare conceit that they establish early on. So in one sense, every jump scare after the first is too many in Pay the Ghost, because you're ready for them. However, if you change up the cues and expectations, you should be able to keep using them, as long as they keep making people jump.

5.  How do you rank this among Nicholas Cage’s worst films?

JD: I have no idea. I do know that, since Cage was in Kick-Ass in 2010, he's been in at least 16 movies, and only one has broken a 7.0 rating on IMDB, and that was The Croods. But the badness of the movies isn't the point. Nic Cage is like the fan-favorite player on a terrible sports team who can transform losing into a good time. But even he can't rescue Pay the Ghost. For all Nic Cage does, they could have cast Edward Furlong or Kevin Sorbo. At least Kevin Sorbo would have known what to do about the ghost witch's choke hold.

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