Some movies defy easy classification. Sure there can be elements of horror or western or action that you can pick out and try to label it as such, but it hangs loosely on it and is ill-fitting, ready to fall off as it doesn’t quite fit. PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND is such a movie. On its surface, it is a post-apocalyptic western set in Japan, with elements of horror coming in the form of the ghosts that haunt the wasteland where a horrific accident occurred between a prison bus and a truck carrying nuclear waste. But if you go in expecting something straightforward, director SION SONO will make sure you are in for a hell of a surprise as he takes you on a mind-bending, bizarre trek through a meditation on nuclear energy and time itself.
Nic Cage stars as Hero, a bank robber responsible for the deaths of several innocent people, brought before the Governor (Bill Mosely) of the settlement known as Samurai Town. He wants Hero to retrieve his granddaughter Bernice (Sophia Boutella) from the Ghostland, as she had run away and been taken prisoner there. To ensure his cooperation, he’s fitted with a suit that contains explosives in the neck, arms and groin. If he attempts to tamper with the suit or hurt Bernice, one of the various charges will go off. There’s also a box on his arm that contains a countdown timer for three days. If Bernice doesn’t speak into it before the time is up, the suit will blow up. If she does, he will get an additional two days to make it back and get the suit unlocked.
It only gets weirder from there as Hero encounters the wasteland ghosts and is rescued by the outcasts to their encampment where they are trapped and forever trying to keep the second hand on a giant clock from moving. Enoch, the leader of the camp who spends most of his time reading to the outcasts from a mobile library that I was immediately jealous of, helps him find Bernice, who is there but semi-catatonic and without her voice. Now Hero must find a way to get Bernice back to the Governor though the army of ghosts before time runs out and the bombs he is wearing detonate.
Again, it sounds like something that should be a run-of-the-mill ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK knock-off, but Sono transforms it into an entire experience that is chock full of odd moments that never stop coming. From the whole town breaking out into a song about a grandfather clock to a rousing speech by Hero that rivals the one Ash gives in ARMY OF DARKNESS, there’s always something going on, some action of weirdness that keeps the movie pumping with a weird energy I couldn’t get enough of.
As Hero, Cage is understandably overwhelmed and distressed about his position. He plays the role with a pensive and resigned attitude, knowing that what he did in the past has led to this but still not enjoying the idea of being covered with explosives and sent out to fight ghosts and whatever else is out there. It’s a surprisingly restrained performance from Cage, with only a few moments for him to really let himself get unhinged. When he does it is a real treat and worth the price of admission.
Boutella has much less to work with, having only a few lines, but she does well with what she has and shines in the role and even gets some action scenes to boot. Moseley is good as the Governor, dressed like a skinny Boss Hogg and playing him with an undercurrent of sinisterness that clues you in that there is a very good reason his granddaughter had run away. Rounding out the cast is Tak Sakaguchi as the Governor’s enforcer Yasujiro and Nick Cassavetes as Psycho, Cage’s former partner who played a part in the massacre at the bank.
If you’re looking for something a little challenging and a little weird but ultimately worthwhile, you should definitely give PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND a watch. You might be disappointed, but you will very much be entertained.