You know when cult king Nic Cage says a movie “might be the wildest movie I’ve ever made”, you’re in for a trip. Samurai Western Prisoners of The Ghostland, celebrating its world premiere at Sundance 2021 virtual edition, has some big shoes to fill, following in a progression of increasingly bizarre and instant-cult followed films of the Nic Cage Rennaisance; Panos Cosmatos Manson-cult-in-a-lava-lamp revenge thriller Mandy, and Richard Stanley’s extraterrestrial alpaca rave Color Out of Space, to name a few.
The English-language debut from prolific Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono (Tokyo Vampire Hotel), Prisoners of the Ghostland dives headfirst into a melting pot dystopia of the nostalgic neons of both Eastern and Western culture. The film keeps the universe limited to only two primary locations, opting to let its larger-than-life cast breath some depth -and chaos- into the Spaghetti Western clapboard facades; facades so perfectly flimsy they look as if they might fall over if you lean on them too hard.
“… a melting pot dystopia of the nostalgic neons of both Eastern and Western culture.”
After a bank heist gets upgraded to multiple counts of manslaughter, a bank robber (Nicolas Cage) is imprisoned in Samurai Town, a dystopian world of melancholic Geishas and Elvis Americana. The town is ruled over with an iron, propaganda-heavy fist by The Governer, embodied by Bill Moseley doing pure Kentucky Fried camp. After The Governor’s ‘granddaughter’ Bernice (Sofia Boutella, The Mummy) goes missing in the Ghostland – the super dusty and maybe haunted outskirts of town – The Governer enlists the help of our Robber turned Hero.
Hero isn’t just left to his own devices, though. Before being set off into the nuclear ruins, he’s suited up with Ghostrider reminiscent leather jumpsuit armed with grenades in some key and cringe-worthy spots, spots primed to go off if he dares step too far out of line. With a device on his arm ticking down like the ‘don’t use all the magic before you trick someone into marrying you’ watch they pulled out of their asses in The Santa Clause 2, Hero sets off to find Bernice, and discover what’s truly living in the Ghostland.
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Though I at times found the lack of literal “journey” disappointing, The Prisoners of the Ghostland makes up for lack of expansiveness by honing in on delightful visual storytelling and cinematography. Porcelain decay and old Vegas lighting sprout up around the desert landscape, creating a decomposing dollhouse for Bernice and Hero to explore. Samurai Town is equally as eye-pleasing, popping with red paper lanterns, white-faced Geishas, and fluttering pink cherry blossoms while a neon stock ticker sign glows in the main street.
Prisoners of The Ghostland is surprisingly subdued until the battle-filled finale, the octane of the film primarily delivered by Cage’s always-exuberant performance, at one point shouting “HI-FUCKING-YAH” mid-fight to the pleasure of Rage Cage stans everywhere. He is matched in merit by Moseley, whose brand of disconnected dialogue delivery comes off as almost accidentally ironic, but fits so perfectly in the superficially sweet Americana this dystopia clings to. It’s all Gumballs, Jukeboxes, and tall-hatted Texans.
” ..the octane of the film primarily delivered by Cage’s always-exuberant performance”
Rising standout Sofia Boutella is almost criminally underutilized but shows out during the battle to show off some Samurai slicing skills worthy of another crack in the big Hollywood properties. (I’m glaring at you, Dark Universe).
As big a personality as he is, Hero and his accompanied Bernice seem to linger until the final showdown. Prisoners of the Ghostland doesn’t gain a lot of steam in the Ghostland itself, particularly avoiding conflict with some foreshadowed ghosts from a heist gone wrong. Also equally as underexplored is the haunting armor? cage? of porcelain doll shards that enrobe victims like eggshells, hiding them from a baddy that never quite comes.
“…a timeless Dystopian action flick that’s a ball-busting good time”
Though this romp isn’t quite as ‘larger than life’ as I was anticipating, Nicolas Cage always is. Prisoners of the Ghostland is a charmingly chaotic ride of two cinematic worlds colliding, creating a timeless Dystopian action flick that’s a ball-busting good time.
Sion Sono’s Prisoners of the Ghostland celebrated its World Premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Click HERE to follow our full coverage of the festival and be sure to let us know if you’re excited to check out this wild western over on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and in the official Nightmare on Film Street Discord. Not a social media fan? Get more horror delivered straight to your inbox by joining the Neighbourhood Watch Newsletter.