MOVIE REVIEW: PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND is an anarchic post-apocalyptic melange of East meets West in Sion Sono’s English-language debut film


Nicholas Cage channels Mad Max and Snake Plissken by way of Death Race 2000’s Frankenstein in this genre-bending, destined to be midnight favorite.

When one thinks of filmmaker Sion Sono, one is reminded of his debut film, 2001’s Suicide Club, a gory in-your-face cult film that seemingly explored the ties between a retiring J-Pop band called Dessert that just might have inspired a string of mass suicides and a doomsday cult leading to their final performance. The premise of Suicide Club just seems audacious on its surface and the further you get into it, the more and more insane it seems. The same could be said of Sono’s 2021 English language film debut, Prisoners of the Ghostland, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival as a Midnight pick and seems destined for the same sort of cult following as many of Sono’s other films like Suicide Club, Noriko’s Dinner Table, and Why Don’t You Go Play in Hell? among many others.

Prisoners of the Ghostland follows our Hero (Nicholas Cage), a prisoner kept in Samurai Town after a violent bank robbery where he takes the fall for a series of murders mid-robbery during a psychotic break by his partner, who is named appropriately enough, Psycho (played by The Notebook director Nick Cassavettes). The Governor of Samurai Town, a redneck dictator in the mold of The Dukes of Hazzard’s Boss Hogg by way Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’s Chop Top as played by Bill Moseley, offers the hero a chance for clemency. His granddaughter Bernice (played by Atomic Blonde’s Sofia Boutella) has gone missing and if the Hero can save her within 3 days, he’ll be freed. However, not unlike Escape from New York, The Governor has arranged some contingencies to keep our Hero in line. Cage’s protagonist is outfitted with a leather suit that keeps him from harming Bernice at the expense of his arms, and from having his way with her at the expense of his testicles. This arrangement leads to some of the film’s most memorable scenes.

Lest the reader think Prisoners is just a showcase for Nick Cage’s craziness, Sono leaves plenty of room for the rest of his ensemble to have their moments in the sun. Moseley looks to be having the time of his life as he chews the scenery as The Governor, perhaps the most self-satisfied post-apocalyptic kingpin since Keanu Reeves played The Dream in Ana-Lily Amarpour’s The Bad Batch. He has Samurai Town locked down with the townswomen serving as his property, which keeps his bodyguard Yazushiro (played by Versus star Tak Sakaguchi) bound to him in an effort to hopefully spare his sister the worst of the Governor’s abuses. Sakaguchi isn’t given a lot to do in the script, but he seizes every moment he has to give his presence some pathos, which really works, especially in an impromptu katana duel with Cage’s Hero. There’s a lot of Sakaguchi’s trademark swordsmanship on display here and he’s used much better here than in Crazy Samurai Musashi. Boutella makes the most of her largely silent part and once she’s given the opportunity to cut loose, really has a memorable role. Even Nick Cassavettes’ role as Psycho comes to pay off, as he turns out to be the leader of a group of Radioactive ghost zombies that come in to play for the film’s climax. The one real waste here is Imogen Poots, who isn’t really given much to do here given what a great actress she is, her role in the film basically a blink and you’ll miss it cameo.

But, ultimately, the real star is Sono’s directorial vision and artistic eye. Despite concessions made due to Sono’s health during preproduction and filming, Prisoners of the Ghostland is a gorgeous film to look at. The film’s erstwhile ghostland being a production designer’s dream come true; a blend of Terry Gilliam’s arcana from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen by way of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus with a healthy dose of Alejandro Jodorowsky inspired weirdness that reminds this viewer of El Topo meets Santa Sangre. The costume design and color palette pops on the screen and draws your eye in throughout and the setpieces are all kinds of eye-candy for genre film fans. Sono visually checks movies like Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and Death Race 2000 with this design element and that makes the world-building in this film all the richer. While the film has its technical faults and some of the East meets West elements don’t marry as well as they could, Prisoners of the Ghostland is its own unique thing that demands viewing. It’s not Mandy and it’s not Suicide Club, but it is the kind of unique premise that only Sion Sono could suck a viewer into the rich eye candy and wide array of in-your-face performances from a whos-who in the cult film world make Prisoners of the Ghostland a future cult classic in the making.