The curious creative devolution of Nicolas Cage continues unabated, it seems, with this supernatural tale of other dimensional forces abducting the young son, Charlie (Jack Fulton), of a literature professor Mike Lawford (Cage) from a street parade on Halloween night. The opening scene, a 45 second piece set in a distant century, is supposed to act as a framing device and clue to uncovering the eventual ‘solution’ – if that’s the right word for a showdown that sees the aggrieved father entering a portal in hopes of retrieving his boy.
A few prosperous years back Cage must have been barely able to suppress his mirth at the thought of actors, well and truly,on the slippery slide to straight-to-video obscurity, signing up for C-grade stuff like this. Now here he is putting his own signature upon the dotted line sometimes 4 or 5 times in a year for films that – let’s be frank – haven’t got a snowball’s chance in hell of ever making it to the big screen. There are the aberrations, of course – and welcome ones at that, such as Cage’s brilliant Adam West-like contribution as the insanely devoted Big Daddy to Chloe Grace Moretz’s Hit-Girl in Matthew Vaughn’s magnificent Kick-Ass (2010). Even just a couple of years ago, David Gordon Green gave him a juicy role in Joe (2013) as an intense, compelling loner set on a path to inevitable self-destruction.
The mainstream will clearly never forget Cage, but for the most part, his stocks have fallen alarmingly and combined with a relentless desire to continually get on the merry-go-round, thus spreading himself thinly across a swath of incoming projects, means that a swan dive into future bargain bins will likely uncover an ocean of washed-up cinematic corpses as his career further devolves. But then there’s the fact that Cage will soon be seen in the next films of Oliver Stone and Paul Schrader as well as Larry Charles’s new comedy, Army of One, as “an American civilian” who “sets out on his own to find Osama Bin Laden.” A man who has been living in a bunker for a while without internet access or a copy of Zero Dark Thirty?
It’s fascinating to see how various careers converge in these too-easy-to-castigate productions. To say that the trajectory of director Uli Edel has taken some dramatic upward and downward turns, not unlike Cage, would be an understatement. Christiane F. (1981), his early Hubert Selby Jr. adaptation Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989) and his recent triumphant return to Germany for The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008) have all placed him in a positive light. At the other end of the scale, notorious Madonna vehicle Body of Evidence (1993) and lame family ‘comedy’ Little Vampire (2000) are credits that any director might want to erase from their back catalogue. And yet, like Cage, here he is, roped into Pay the Ghost, which admittedly holds dearest, at its core, the concept of desperate, eternal parental love for a missing child – the kind of familiar theme that strikes a chord in the lives of all. And who doesn’t love a good ghost story?
From that angle too, there’s a certain level of enjoyment to be had from this film which isn’t expressly awful. In fact a relatively eerie tone is established early on and there are a couple of genuine chills achieved as Mike strives, in the wake of his break-up from wife (Sarah Wayne Callies) to trudge through life whilst continuing forlornly to find clues to his son’s disappearance. The Halloween connection is crucial and as, a year later, the date closes in again, Mike enlists the help of an attractive colleague (Veronica Ferres) with a skill for computer research to inch closer to a resolution which he naturally believes will see him somehow reunited with Charlie.
Cage is undoubtedly giving it a fair shake here. He goes with the flow, contorting his face with grief, with anger, with despair, exactly when it’s called for. He’s not terrible, you see. Nor is Callies, an actress whose TV work on Prison Break and The Walking Dead has given her much broader appeal. But it’s just that Cage’s craft – as well as his ability to judiciously choose projects – has mostly abandoned him. We may ridicule them for being unable to reach past heights, but we forgive actors a lot too – especially one whose been in so many great to very good, often iconic, films. Cage’s CV is stacked with many that I’d consider absolute personal favourites.
How to forget Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck (1987), David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), Andrew Bergman’s Honeymoon in Vegas (1992), Red Rock West (1993), his Oscar winner Leaving Las Vegas (1995), Brain De Palma’s Snake Eyes (1998), Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead (1999), and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002). All staggering films in their own ways. And do I dare mention Joel Schumacher’s 8MM (1999) or Brett Ratner’s The Family Man (2000) as weird kinds of guilty pleasures? No, no I don’t. Then there’s that extraordinary action triumvirate of Michael Bay’s The Rock (1996), Simon West’s Con-Air (1997) and John Woo’s operatic Face/Off (1997). And do you really think you can live through Drive Angry (2007) and not be scarred for the rest of your life?
And so Cage, more than most, deserves to be cut a little slack. Would I realistically recommend Pay the Ghost? Not to the serious minded, certainly, but there’s no denying that we’ve all plugged, semi-enjoyably, through legions of films of this ilk without actively hating them for existing and even secretly – very secretly – imagining that they weren’t, by a long shot, the worst thing we’ve ever seen. This is just another film, one of hundreds each year laboured and sweated over as if, through the intervention of a benign divinity, they may be end up being a significant contribution to the art form; before finally, depressingly, dissolving like butter on a summer sidewalk, forgotten and abandoned by you and I to a world screaming past, a blur impossible to decipher to a stationary dot on a map. So before we part, let’s take a moment, here and now, while there’s still time, while there’s still a modicum of motivation and a tiny morsel of generosity still nestled in our hearts, to record its near-silent passing. Pay the Ghost is yours to own, revisit or ignore on a shelf forever, on DVD. Right now.