Featured image: Nick Cassavetes and Nicolas Cage in Prisoners of the Ghostland. (Courtesy of Mongrel Media.)
Directed by Sion Sano. Written by Aaron Hendry and screenplay by Reza Sixo Safai. Starring Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Nick Cassavetes. Runtime 1h 40 min. Prisoners of the Ghostland premiered at Sundance earlier this year, and had its Canadian Premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival on Friday, August 20.
In Prisoners of the Ghostland, a kind-of alternate America, there are two core factions: The visually interesting Samurai Town, which is like a combination of feudal Japan and the Wild West. The other faction is the titular “Ghostland,” a creatively shot wasteland with great sets and a giant clock that looms over the town.
In the film, we first meet Hero (Nicolas Cage) and Psycho (Nick Cassavetes) robbing a bank in Samurai Town. It’s a colourful robbery filled with gumballs. We don’t find out all that happens here until the mid-point, where the writers (Aaron Hendry, Reza Sixo Safai) pick a great time to share that information. The other main character we meet is Bernice (Sofia Boutella), who escapes Samurai Town that’s led by her tyrannical grandfather, The Governor (Bill Moseley).
The Governor takes Hero out of prison and employs him to save Bernice, not giving him a choice and strapping a leather jacket which is rigged to blow (which is such a great costume). This exchange which ends with the town singing along to a weird anthem tells us what kind-of wild ride this will be. Then, Hero leaves Samurai Town behind on a bicycle instead of the car given to him, as townsfolk observe, “What a bad-ass.”
You can tell a lot went into this world building. The film’s style is great, from the town’s set design to Sion Sano’s fun direction and Sohei Tanikawa’s great cinematography. The film is billed as an action-horror-thriller, but it’s lite on the horror. The IMDb synopsis promises “an evil curse” that feels like an afterthought, as it’s convoluted and vague.
The townspeople in the Ghostland cover the “cursed” in porcelain to protect them from the curse, making human mannequins. This is one of the reasons that the introduction to the Ghostland is super creepy in terms of imagery. Other than the mannequins, there’s not much horror. Well, okay, the character of Ratman (Young Dais) and his goonies are creepy, mostly because they reminded me of the Wheelers from Return to Oz.
In terms of characters, I was most underwhelmed by Nick Cassavetes’ Psycho, since he doesn’t get much screen time. He does things you’d totally expect someone named Psycho would do, but he’s mostly there to characterize Cage’s Hero to give Hero a moral line that Psycho goes past, and Hero can’t really go back from. Cassavetes (who is more often behind the camera since the 2000s) just doesn’t get enough to do here, which disappoints for a bonkers film like this.
Otherwise, what’s fun about Prisoners of the Ghostland is that (mostly) everyone joins in on the world’s campiness and its strangeness. That’s true with the film’s villain Bill Moseley as The Governor. He’s obviously having a lot of fun as the character, and I always love seeing him. He shares a lot of scenes alongside one of his granddaughters, Susie (Yuzaka Nakaya). They’re a strange pairing, which works for the film even if she’s a bit too weird in this world.
And then, of course, there’s Nicolas Cage. He’s being his usual self from the first time we see him on-screen, but I didn’t really get the Cage rage until he gives a big speech to the Ghostland and screams “TESTICAAAAL!” at the top of his lungs. I would have cheered at the theatre because that’s when I really started to vibe with Prisoners of the Ghostland. When he’s having his most fun, that’s when the film is at its best.
The person who plays the straightest in this film is Sofia Boutella, but that’s because her character is written that way. She’s more grounded in “realism” than everyone else, in a very real situation as she tries to get away from the oppression of her grandfather. I was happy when she really got into the action in the third act, totally kicking ass. She gets most of her character work in that action-packed finale. I think the only thing this finale was missing was a kick-ass soundtrack, as there’s no song to get hyped by. That’s one aspect that “misses,” much like the horror elements, but the finale and Cage both delight here so much, I’d recommend this.
Prisoners of the Ghostland had its Canadian Premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival on August 20 in person. It plays again virtually on Monday, August 23 at 7:00 p.m. If you’re in Canada, you can buy tickets here.