"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. Such was its obscurity to me a few years ago, the only knowledge I had of its existence was the poster appearing in the background during a movie theatre scene in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. But now it has seen remastered releases on physical media, Prison awaits being introduced to a whole new audience.
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 was actually pretty good and he seemed 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, with all of them bringing some surprisingly decent characterisation to their flimsy one-note stereotypes.
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 (which she never solves). 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). Prison also ends rather abruptly, presumably because the very poor script had no closure to the various plot threads that had been getting tossed around and so the writer just ended it there.
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.
Director(s): Renny Harlin
Writer(s): Irwin Yablans (story), C. Courtney Joyner (screenplay)
Actor(s): Viggo Mortensen, Chelsea Field, Lane Smith, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Tom Everett, Ivan Kane, André De Shields, Tommy Lister Jr.
Duration: 102 mins