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Horror films are basically little computer programs that run on primal hindbrain hardware installed in every psychologically normal person — neurological proof of shared human experience, if you needed it. But there’s a boundary between universal archetypes and corny stereotypes, and the land across that line is commercially zoned for Halloween stores.
In Pay the Ghost, Nicolas Cage is Mike, a newly minted English professor whose wife, Kristen (Sarah Wayne Callies of The Walking Dead), is glad for his career advancement but frustrated at his constant absence from family life. Their son, Charlie, seems to be written as a four-year-old but is played by a seven-year-old, which either confers sub-neurotypical vulnerability or triggers cognitive dissonance in people who actually know children. Charlie disappears during a Halloween festival, and the couple spend the next year assembling one of those clippings-festooned Walls of Craziness that director Uli Edel presumably saw on TV at some point. It becomes clear that their son has been kidnapped by a vengeful seventeenth-century spirit.
Pay the Ghost trades in imagery of creepy basements, vultures, cloaked wraiths, ominous storm clouds, people wearing canvas-bag masks, and spooky children who are “of the corn,” so to speak. The villain is literally a shrieking banshee.
But the script doesn’t know the difference between being something scary and pointing at something scary. It’s less a film than a series of imitative gestures, a bunch of horror signifiers pointing to nothing, like the jumbled-up clearance shelf at CVS on the morning after Halloween.
Pay the Ghost
Directed by Uli Edel
Opens September 25
Available on demand