Tag Haunted Prison

Prison (1988)

Prison (1988)

Horror Has A New Home.

The old, abandoned Creedmore Prison is reopened due to overcrowding and former guard turned warden Ethan Sharpe is placed in charge to oversee the arrival of the first inmates. But when prisoners on work duty break into the bricked-up execution chamber, they unwittingly release the spirit of a former prisoner who was executed there for a crime he didn’t commit. Now the spirit is out for vengeance and Sharpe is the main target.

 

I love discovering films like Prison, lost gems from the 80s which have been forgotten about and rarely seen the light of day until some modern day distributor has decided to take a punt and release them onto DVD and blu-ray. It gives people the chance to discover quality little genre films like this – stylish, low budget horror films which emphasis what old-fashioned horror making was all about – atmosphere, tension and creeping the audience out.

Though director Renny Harlin has since made for himself in big budget Hollywood action films like Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger, his eye for horror is actually pretty good and he seems  far more capable when dealing with a low budget film here than he did with his bloated blockbusters. Even the opening sequences, a first person point-of-view of an inmate taking the walk from his cell to the electric chair, is better than pretty much anything else he’s done in Hollywood since.

Prison‘s atmosphere is one of its strongest selling points. Filmed inside an actual abandoned prison, there’s no pandering to picture perfect studio sets here. This is one big, cold and very dark place, unforgiving in its brutal nature and an ideal location in which to unleash some Hell-bent force of revenge. Dusty, dirty, damp and dangerous, Harlin avoids shining too much light into the inner bowels of the prison, keeping things shadowy and murky. This makes the ghostly blue light, which signals the arrival of the vengeful spirit, even more ominous as it lights up the screen with its eerie, unholy shine. This is a prison where you wouldn’t want to incarcerated, let alone be incarcerated with something sinister.

Into this harsh setting comes a diverse group of characters, most of who play up to generic prison stereotypes (the predatory letch, his skinny white cell mate, the jacked-up black guy, an elderly old sage, etc) but who are all afforded some decent screen time to develop something out of nothing roles. Viggo Mortensen stars in an early role and it’s a by-the-book performance, showing us early signs of how good an actor he would turn out to be but not really doing much to challenge the stereotype of a hot-shot new inmate. Lane Smith steals the show as the bad ass warden, chewing up the scenery without crossing over the border into cartoon territory. The rest of the cast is filled up with a slew of character actors from the mammoth Tom ‘Tiny’ Lister to Tom Everett.

Prison takes it’s time settling down but Harlin never goes for the jugular straight away, deciding to tease out the mystery of the prison a little more and never taking the audience for granted by explaining all. There’s no question just who is doing the killing why – I’ve seen too many horror films to be fooled by that anymore. But it’s interesting to see how things unfold. Sadly Chelsea Field’s rather pointless character adds a bit of dead weight to proceedings with her sub-plot in trying to get to the bottom of the mystery clearly being introduced just to shoe-horn a female into a male prison. There are a lot of other hints and loose ends that the film teases you with but then never addresses them (including the most blatant by showing us that Mortensen’s character is a reincarnation of the executed inmate but then never raises this issue again)

Shortly after Harlin made this, he was snapped up to helm A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master and the similarities between the two horror films are evident. Prison has a mean streak which makes for some great set pieces, in particular the numerous fates that the prisoners and guards meet throughout the film. Characters are melted alive in their cells, have steel pipes slowly driven into their skulls or are wrapped from head-to-toe in barbed wire, all courtesy of some splendid effects work by noted genre veteran John Carl Buechler. These kills share a fantastical, nightmarish quality, much in keeping with the way that Freddy Krueger killed off his victims in their dreams so you can understand why Harlin was approached. There aren’t too many deaths but such is the quality of the ones on display, you’ll believe that the whole film was a gore-drenched massacre.

 

Prison is a good-old fashioned creepy horror film which does a lot of things right and ticks a lot of boxes. Unfortunately some glaring script issues and some pacing issues towards the finale third really do hold this back from becoming a true cult classic. Definitely work a look if you can find it.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Furnace (2006)

Furnace (2007)

Somewhere between prison and hell lies the furnace.

A sudden spate of suicides amongst inmates occurs when a long-closed section of Blackgate Prison is re-opened to house an overflow of prisoners. Detective Michael Turner is called in to investigate these tragedies and slowly uncovers the real supernatural story: that a vengeful spirit has been unearthed and is out to get revenge.

 

Furnace is every bit as dull and as predictable as it sounds, just another generic ghost film which throws in the same one or two frame close-ups of ghosts, lots of nauseating camera work and a general sense of been there, done that. The Asians have pretty much cornered the market in creepy ghost stories featuring child ghosts and there’s nothing that Furnace has in its arsenal that even comes close to matching its international supernatural competition.

In fact there’s not a large amount of the supernatural on show here. Most of Furnace is grounded in the traditional cop thriller mould and there are lots of scenes of our heroic detective piecing together bits of the puzzle by questioning, reading up on articles and generally being a nuisance around the prison. When the film stays inside the confines of the prison, Furnace isn’t too bad. It was shot inside an old Tennessee prison so the realistic setting gives it some added impact above anything some stage sets could handle. Some of the scenes inside do manage to kick start the film into life, particularly the early ‘suicide’ inside one of the cells and there are some solid special effects including crawling severed fingers. But these are too sporadic and the film never really gets going, opting to stay within its limited scope instead of trying anything adventurous.

Michael Pare plays Detective Turner completely by-the-book. He’s action man when he needs to be, he’s tender and romantic when he’s wooing the ladies and he’s good at his job during the “let’s play cop” scenes. Pare is solid enough to do what is expected of his character in the film but there’s not an awful lot of depth to his character despite some attempts at back story. Tom Sizemore co-stars as one of the prison guards who has history with Turner. Naturally this sub-plot goes virtually nowhere and is simply another obstruction for Turner to get past in his quest to solve the case. Sizemore phones the performance in and, save for an unintentionally-hilarious scene where he completely flips and starting shooting inmates, the role is very poorly written.

Spare a thought for Danny Trejo, a man so entrenched in stereotype that you just assume he’s going to be playing the same role in every film he’s in. Trejo stars as, you guessed it, a tough guy inmate. He’s joined by rapper Ja Rule but both characters are so insignificant to the main story that it would have been better to cut them out entirely and devote a bit more time to the main characters.

 

Furnace is a lifeless ghost flick, trapped between playing up the horror aspects and playing out the crime thriller aspects. Lumbering along a dull path, it manages to do neither aspect very well.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Task, The (2011)

The Task (2011)

The audience isn’t the only one watching

‘The Task’ is a new reality TV show in which contestants must complete terrifying missions in an abandoned jail if they wish to claim the substantial prize on offer. Six young students are the first group to compete for the cash but they are unaware that the jail still harbours the spirit of the murderous warden who used to torture and kill the inmates before being executed.
Horror films set around reality TV are nothing new. Heck, they’ve been on the go for years since the dawn of Big Brother and these daft reality celebrity shows clogging up our televisions. But they’ve run their course, as the latest couple of series of Big Brother in the UK have shown with dwindling audiences and lack of mainstream media interest. So to see The Task released in 2011 (with a couple of reality-style horrors released in 2002 with Halloween: Resurrection and My Little Eye) seems to me to be the result of a distinct lack of originality and risk-taking in the genre at the moment. Why bother creating a new story when you can just wheel out some tried-and-tested plot?

This isn’t a knock directly at The Task – it’s a knock at the genre in general at the moment. The straight-to-DVD series of After Dark ‘Originals’ (of which The Task is a part of) have been largely forgettable teen horrors, pimped up a little with fancy covers and made to sound like the bees knees of cutting edge scare material when really they’ve been highly derivative and largely non-descript. I appreciate the sentiment behind giving new talent the chance to prove what they can do and get their product out there to a wider audience. But if these are the future of horror, we’re in for a barren couple of years.

The Task is competently made but is nothing more than by-the-numbers teen horror. Everything about it screams pedestrian from the plot, to the characters, to the setting, the lack of any sort of tension or atmosphere and modern-day reliance on flashy editing. It’s the embodiment of a film which will no doubt keep you interested for its running time but is immediately forgettable straight afterwards.

Director Alex Orwell is no doubt pleased that his film has made it onto DVD but he should at least learn how to build suspense or create some sort of an atmosphere. I mean, the setting is decent enough but how many times are we going to see horror films set inside abandoned jails, asylums or other kooky places with sinister histories? It’s just not fun to watch a group of twenty-somethings walk around dark corridors and jail cells for the umpteenth time, talking to each other and generally being irritating to the audience. Are we supposed to care for this bunch of self-obsessed idiots? After all, they’re all in it for the fame and the money. Forget doing hard work, let’s all just take the easy way out and do reality TV! The usual caricatures are here including the goth girl, the dumb blonde, etc. Throw in some expendable crew members from the company running the show and you’ve got the recipe for a predictable ride.

It’s a good hour into the proceedings by the time things start to get interesting and remotely exciting and that’s a bit of a overstatement. The idea of each character having to do tasks seems to have come straight out of the Saw films complete with a Jigsaw-style host (a guy in some clown make-up explains what the characters need to do). But then you’ve also got helpings of The House on Haunted Hill thrown in there too, with the TV crew having devised all manner of weird and wonderful surprises for the contestants in a bid to throw them off – there’s even a ghost walking around the corridors caught on camera. Only this time Jeffrey Combs is nowhere to be seen.

The first couple of tasks each character has to do are hardly nerve-shattering and I’m sure if I had been watching this TV show, I’d have turned over long before the better ones later on. Things do pick up slightly once the vengeful warden has made his presence felt but we’re never really sure of what he is or why he’s there. And if you think his arrival will signal the start of the gore, then you’ll be sorely disappointed too. I’m not quite sure why the film’s certificate is so high (it’s an 18 in the UK) because from what I remember, the film is bloodless. Problems are confounded with a script which messes around with too many ideas, all pulling in different directions and inevitably ends up tearing the film apart. The case in point being the overblown finale which makes no sense and comes right out of leftfield. Either the production ran out of cash or the writers ran out of ideas. You make the call.

 

The Task takes a long time to get where it’s supposed to be going and even then you’re not really sure where you’ve ended up. The only thing you realise is that you’ve been there before – many times. It’s deja vu all over again.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆