Today marks the official start of my glorious Thanksgiving Break. My sage advice—to sacrifice Columbus Day as a day off in exchange for an entire week of freedom for Thanksgiving—has apparently, via osmosis, found its way to my school’s administration, and after slogging it out for three months, we’re finally reaping the benefits of that sacrifice.
This past weekend was also the first time in a few weeks I did not have to travel out of town for one reason or another, so I have watched a lot of movies on Shudder—the good, the bad, and the forgettable (I also managed to get in a late-night session of Civilization VI, eschewing my most recent playthrough as the Celts and cranking up a new run as the Incan Empire, which is slowly expanding across South America at the time of this writing). I managed to catch two flicks with the word “Ghostland” in their titles, one memorable and somewhat good, the other absolutely terrible: 2021’s Prisoners of Ghostland and 2018’s Incident in a Ghostland, respectively.
These two films are wildly different in tone, and despite the similar titles, they are completely unrelated projects. Prisoners of Ghostland is a samurai Western starring my favorite actor, Nicolas Cage; Incident in a Ghostland is a joint Franco-Canadian production that feels like every other budget horror flick of the past decade (that is, lots of pointless jump scares, bad acting—with Canadian accents!—and endless screaming).
Prisoners of Ghostland
The good first: Prisoners is a fun movie, albeit a confusing one (the Wikipedia plot summary helps quite a bit). The confusion, though, is part of the mystery of the story. The director, Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono, creates a complicated, detailed world, in which a disaster at a nuclear facility results in an entire region of Japan being shut off from the rest of the world.
This blighted land—the titular Ghostland—gives rise to multiple factions and cults, as well as the ruthless Governor, a white-clad, corrupt cowboy type who rules over the neon environs of Samurai Town. Samurai Town is a cartoonish rendering of an Old West town, flecked with gawdy urban Japanese elements—the aforementioned neon lights, for example. Even the fonts on the buildings are like a Japanese child’s rendering of what the sign of a general store in a Wild West boom town might have looked like.
The Governor sends Nicolas Cage’s character—simply called “Hero”—to recover his “granddaughter,” Beatrice (it’s clear that Beatrice is one of the Governor’s many sex slaves, women he scooped up after the disaster and whom he abuses), who has disappeared into Ghostland. To heighten the tension, Cage is fitted with a suit that explodes his testicles (!!) if he gets aroused, and can blow off his head and other body parts if he gets too excited.
Thus, Prisoners is a bit like a blend of two John Carpenter films, Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and Escape from New York (1981), blended with Homer’s Odyssey, and wrapped up in a Japanese package. Traditional elements of Japanese theatre and music are used throughout the film to provide exposition, with tittering Japanese women also acting as the chorus might in a Greek tragedy (or a Baroque opera). The film possesses the fun, mischievous, mystical qualities of Big Trouble (one of my favorite movies of all time) and the ticking time bomb of Escape from New York. And like the Odyssey, there are quite a few obstacles for our Hero to overcome.
Speaking of ticking time bombs: time is a major theme in the film. Time and memory—Hero is haunted by the “ghosts” of the people his former partner in crime, Psycho, killed in a brutal bank robbery, depicted impressionistically at the start of the film, and fleshed out more explicitly later. When Hero arrives in Ghostland, he finds a group of men struggling to keep the minute hand of a large clock from moving, using ropes to hold pull the hand down. An entire religion has developed around time, and keeping the clock fixed where it is.
He also encounters Ratman and his clan, who wear bizarre outfits covered in what appears to be frayed electrical wiring as shoulder pads. They live in a garbage heap near the clock, but exhibit rat-like behaviors, including scurrying away from Hero when directly confronted.
I can’t pretend to understand everything in this film; there is a lot going on. But I enjoyed it. I was a tad distracted at points in the flick, but the blending of English dialog and Japanese subtitles forced me to stay engrossed in the story, and gave me a deeper appreciation for the strange world Sono created.
There are also some great samurai sword fights and cowboy shoot-outs. There’s something about Westerns and samurai films that makes the two go together like chili and cornbread—they just work. After all, isn’t Star Wars just a cowboy movie about mystical space samurai?
Incident in a Ghostland
As deep as Prisoners is, Incident is that shallow. The story opens with two girls, sisters Beth and Vera, driving with their red-haired French mother, Pauline, to their late Aunt Clarissa’s isolated country home, presumably to start a new life. Beth idolizes the works of H.P. Lovecraft, and aspires to be a horror writer. Vera is the typical angsty teen girl, frustrated about moving away from her boyfriend, but also resentful of the bond between her mother and Beth.
That’s about as deep as the drama goes. The family arrive to the old home, only to be assaulted by a large, mentally challenged man and a creepy woman who resembles a witch.
The film then jumps forward to Beth as an adult. She is a successful author with a loving husband, and has just released a book based on the events of that terrifying night. Shattering her tranquility is a call from her sister, who is still trapped reliving that night.
Concerned for her sister’s wellbeing and unable to reach her mother, Beth returns to the house. Her mother explains that it’s just what Vera does.
At this point, the movie becomes excruciating. Vera is constantly screaming and wailing. Then the twist comes: Beth isn’t a great author, but is still the teenage girl. Even worse, the home invaders killed the girls’ mother, and are using the two as essentially dolls to be abused and mutilated by the lumbering, retarded oaf.
That means even more excruciating screaming, wailing, shouting of “no!”—and on and on. I understand it’s an extremely traumatic experience, but, geeze, it gets so frequent, it drives me nuts in a bad way—instead of getting caught up in the tension of the girls’ plight, I’m just annoyed. Their screeching takes me out of the film, rather than putting me deeper into the film’s dark, twisted world.
There is one well-cast scene: Beth retreats back into her fantasy world, and meets H.P. Lovecraft, who praises her book. The actor cast to play Lovecraft, Paul Titley (giggity), looks just like the lantern-jawed horror writer. It’s a stupid scene—and definitely the kind of thing a literary-minded teenage girl would fantasize about—but Titley looks so much like Lovecraft in this scene, it makes it pretty fun.
That’s about all I have good to say about the movie. If I hadn’t been colonizing South America as the Incan Empire, I’d have shut the flick off. The villains are mildly interested, but one is just a psychotic idiot, and the other is a screeching harpy.
The same can be said for the girls.
Verdict: Skip Incident, watch Prisoners… maybe three or four times.