Nov 9, 2021


Spoiler: This review does not serve any purpose.

Nicolas Cage has made the most interesting movies of his career over the last ten years. I didn’t say good, mind you, although there have been quite a few of those—I said interesting. Even his failures, like 2018’s low-rated Between Worlds, a metaphysical erotic thriller that breaks the fourth wall and recognizes Cage’s character as actually being Nicolas Cage during a sex scene, is far more interesting than the last highest-rated Hollywood Marvel tentpole you saw. Despite his reputation as being a quirky, rubber-stamping performer saying yes to every offer that comes his way, well…broken clocks and all that: saying yes to a lot can yield occasionally awesome results, and it’s given us horror fans a handful of terrific titles during this period. Though it’s impossible to keep up with Cage’s movies at this point, I feel confident in saying it’s been a while since I’ve seen a particular movie where he slept walk through his role. Cage is always trying, and always giving it his all; he’s quite possibly one of the bravest actors from the old guard still taking chances with wild abandon, unafraid to ascend to the most manic heights if it serves the movie. (See the binge-drinking, underwear-clad bathroom freak-out scene from 2018’s incredible Mandy.) This was something I always knew, but of which I was reminded following an impromptu double-feature of two Cage flicks brand new to video: the understated, beautifully made Pig, in which he offers a tragic, brokenhearted performance as a man seeking the last remaining thing on this planet he loves, and Prisoners of the Ghostland, in which he plays a criminal forced to go looking for something he couldn’t care less about, screaming his face off and gnashing his teeth and contending with roving desert threats the whole time—ghostly or otherwise. His range across those two random examples was remarkable, the first bringing tears and the second bringing wide-eyed astonishment. Very few actors can do this, and Cage is one of them, though his genuine talent is often forgotten thanks to his internet folk hero status as a meme, those “crazy reel” YouTube compilations, and his doppelganger in that old-timey 1800s photos that suggests he is, in fact, a vampire. (Insert scene from 1988’s Vampire’s Kiss which sees Cage running down the street screaming, “I’M A VAMPIRE, I’M A VAMPIRE!”)

Cage himself has described Prisoners of the Ghostland as “the wildest movie [he’s] ever made,” a quote wisely utilized in the film’s marketing, as anyone considering watching a movie with a concept as wild as this one would likely be enticed by his presence alone, so once you see that quote, well, holy shit—strap in. Such a proclamation is a very ballsy boast, as by now I’m sure your own choices for Cage’s craziest are playing in your brain like a powerpoint presentation. Could Prisoners of the Ghostland out-crazy the Hellraiser-meets-Death Wish vigilante horror-thriller Mandy, or the stone-faced supernatural comedy/horror hybrid Willy’s Wonderland, or Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which has a scene where Cage’s bad cop sees the breakdancing figure of a thug his goons just killed and says, “Shoot him again—his soul is still dancing,” before breaking out in wild, unhinged laughter? Directed by Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono (Cold Fish, Suicide Club), Prisoners of the Ghostland is a mish-mash of genres; not content to borrow influence just from Yojimbo or just from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, it’s instead both—a collision of Japanese samurai warriors and the lone American western about a gunman looking for redemption, creating a nonsensical world of imagery that feels more like a boardwalk sideshow where tourists stop to put on garish costumes and take novelty photos with their families. Cage, of course, is the film’s man with no name—a leather-clad cowboy known only as Hero, or sometimes Nobody, yanked out of jail following a botched bank robbery in a sandy nowhere called Samurai Town and forced into a rescue/retrieval mission across the desert at the behest of the villainous Governor (Bill Moseley). Yes, it’s a direct riff on Escape from New York, or, technically, Escape from LA, but also contains elements of Dances with Wolves, Mad Max, Book of Eli, and the spaghetti western of your choice. Yet, in the face of these largely American and Japanese inspirations, something about Prisoners of the Ghostland feels strangely Australian; though that might be explained away by the Mad Max influence, it almost seems to be echoing the work of cult directors Brian Trenchard-Smith (Dead End Drive-In, The Man from Hong Kong) and Russell Mulcahy (Razorback), leaning on crazy color schemes, an unrelenting quirkiness, and a driving identity only Australian cult cinema is capable of. While I can’t say Prisoners of the Ghostland’s puréed influences all get along, I can say that it’s enchanting, allowing moments of genuine artistry, and, of course, moments of obligatory Cage freak-out scenes. (Cage’s Hero bellows “TESTICLE!” at one point with so much operatic gusto that I swear to Bale’s Batman you can see his tonsils.)  

Though both actors have been dabbling in smaller productions that skip mainstream theatrical debuts altogether, it seems strange to see Cage sharing the screen with character actor Bill Moseley, who has been playing unseemly characters in under-the-radar horror flicks since the 1980s, perhaps most infamously known as Chop Top in Tobe Hooper’s 1986 sequel to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Otis Driftwood in Rob Zombie’s Firefly trilogy. Moseley’s career is filled with as many movies you’ve never heard of as Cage’s…but they’re a different variety of films you’ve never heard of, and likely stocked with other character actors who make most of their living traveling the country for various horror conventions. Really, the whole cast is a combination of different worlds, from the appearance of Cage’s Face/Off co-star Nick Cassavetes as Hero’s former partner in crime and current desert-dwelling ghost (he’s best known as having directed The Notebook) to Sofia Boutella, mainstream sweetheart of Hollywood fare like The Kingsman and Atomic Blonde. How all these people managed to come together and collaborate on a movie that feels like it transcends each of them as individual personalities, I’ll never know, but it only adds to Prisoners of the Ghostland’s indefinable identity.

Prisoners of the Ghostland isn’t a movie so much as it is a dare. It’s a challenge to cinemagoers everywhere, but especially a gauntlet for those like me who are tasked with writing about it. “Dare to make sense of me,” Prisoners of the Ghostland says. “Go ahead and find meaning in the madness.” It’s why this review opens with that spoiler tag: Prisoners of the Ghostland is critic-proof. I’m sure many have tried to bring forth some kind of thoughtful analysis, whereas some others simply threw in the towel and dismissed the title out of hand, tucking tail and fleeing from the carnival of lunacy—from the strange plot, the in-and-out moments of broad humor, the ambiguous sense of whether or not anyone involved in the film’s making is taking it seriously, and what it’s supposed to mean…if it’s supposed to mean anything. If there’s any one thing that Prisoners of the Ghostland isn’t, it’s subtle. Even when the flick takes a break from the fight scenes and ghastly gore, its smaller moments are still peppered with that perceptible sense of “what is this?” It’s so broadly played and relishing in its over-the-topness that it becomes one of those movies where it can either be about nothing at all, or whatever you want it to be. You could walk away claiming it’s an allegory for manifest destiny and I sure as hell wouldn’t argue with you because you’d still be closer to the true “meaning” than I’ll ever get. One thing is for sure: if you’ve ever wanted to see a flick where Nicolas Cage wears a full body leather suit covered in boobytrap explosions while screaming, “I’LL KARATE CHOP YOU!” and “HI-FUCKING YAH! HI-FUCKING YAH!,” well, I’ve got just the one…

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