Movie Review: “Prison”

Our journey with director Renny Harlin begins in 1987 when he directed the film Prison. Incidentally, although I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you haven’t heard of or aren’t familiar with this film, horror aficionados will be familiar with a lot of the talent involved.

The film was produced by Charles Band and distributed by his Empire Pictures brand. As of now, we haven’t put together a series for Full Moon Features, but you can bet that it will be regularly mentioned and will be a subject of praise and ire for more than a handful of series’ before it is all said and over with. For now, I will simply say that a lot of my formative years as a horror fan were spent experiencing some of Charles Bands’ movies, and while I don’t revere many of them as necessarily great films, I do have several I hold of high regard, and, for the most part, I find Bands’ work in the eighties and nineties to carry a certain charm that I look back on fondly.

The film was written by C. Courtney Joyner, which doesn’t at all surprise me. He has been involved in a lot of the writing for Full Moon Features, including Puppet Master III, which I consider to be, not only the best Puppet Master film, but one of the best Full Moon Features ever made. The film also written by Irwin Yablans, a producer who had a very prolific part in the creation of John Carpenter’s Halloween film.

The film stars Viggo Mortensen, an actor either associated with the Lord of the Rings or a few of Cronenberg’s later directorial efforts, as well as horror legend Kane Hodder as our antagonist – a role that predates his debut as Jason Voorhees by about a year.

After the first fifteen minutes of the film, I am already a little perplexed. As I prefaced earlier, I am very familiar with Empire Pictures and Full Moon Features, and if I had to wager a guess, I would say I have seen close to one-hundred movies from the company by now. That in mind, after watching their more recent fare like Evil Bong vs. Gingerdeadman, it is easy to forget that Empire Pictures once used to be capable of making a real, honest effort. I am also perplexed because I had watched the trailer for Prison before watching the film, and what I saw there was a much hammier, blatantly campy experience than what I am witnessing early on. As said, I know the production company I am dealing with here and I can hear the hum of Richard Band’s musical score in the background, and so I am waiting for the other shoe to drop. Thus far, it’s much more subdued and patient than I would have previously expected.

I am a half hour in, and I can’t believe how competently made this film is, and how it still has managed to play things on the straight and narrow. I am actually flabbergasted to tell you the truth. Again, this has nothing to do with any preconceived notion I have about director Renny Harlin and has everything to do with what I have come to expect from Empire Pictures and what I was led to believe by the trailers. I like Empire Pictures, and I like them especially when they have a good director at the helm. For me, and I think a lot of other people, when I think of the best director Empire or Full Moon has to offer, I think of Stuart Gordon for his efforts on films like Dolls and Re-Animator. Even he, however, never clashed with the flavor of what they were though. He was good, but he did a lot of camp and a lot of goofy humor, and he did it usually right out of the gate.

This film feels different. It feels more restrained and is allowing the story and the characters to breathe a little bit more. It is building the general vibe of the prison, establishing it as an unruly, unkempt, and ultimately harsh place. The lighting is atmospheric, the score and sound are both thematic and being put to good use, and it almost feels like I could be watching a pretty alright rendition of The Green Mile. Color me surprised, but I am actually a little bit impressed by that.

The story is straightforward enough.

Basically, the warden, a hard-ass named Ethan Sharpe stood by while an inmate named Charlie Forsythe was killed in the electric chair for a crime that he did not commit. Now, thirty years later, the prison is being reopened and Charlie Forsythe has returned from the afterlife to exact revenge against those who wronged him. Sharpe’s character is a little jumpy in the first half hour, which is the only aspect thus far that I would actually describe as a little over-the-top – he is startled by an officer and literally points his handgun at him and threatens to blow his head off. It makes sense within the context of the film. Ethan is haunted by nightmares about Charlie coming after him. Still though, that’s a little much and I don’t think the average person would shrug off their boss nearly blowing their head off with a handgun.

All in all, it is going well so far – I am buying what they are selling.

The depiction of prison feels realized, although I can’t say for sure how accurate it is. I could see everyone being able to smuggle in cigarettes, and, of course, we all know about the creative ways inmates find ways to make things like toilet wine and tattooing equipment. In fact, if we can take a step back, aside from all the bad things, prison provides a neat little microcosm of how improvisational and resourceful a person can be under certain circumstances. With that said, I haven’t the faintest idea how someone managed to smuggle a guitar in that jail cell. Surely, you wouldn’t be allowed to just have that on the cell block. Imagine what you could do with that? Think of the possibilities! You’d be able to use that as a garrote and strangle somebody if you wanted.

By about the half hour mark, they begin to roll out the supernatural elements of the film. It is important to observe that, for all intents and purposes, New Line Cinema must have seen this film and observed that Renny Harlin would be capable of directing a larger property like A Nightmare on Elm Street. Frankly, it doesn’t take very long once the horror starts to break in that I found myself nodding my head and thinking, “I can see it.” The special effects certainly show their age and their budget. The biggest technical snafu this film commits are the zippy zaps it incorporates, little thunderbolts that very much look like they were overlain over the film. I feel like a lot of films from the eighties have zippy zaps in them that haven’t aged well, even A Nightmare on Elm Street III, for that matter. This is the eighties and this Empire, and the weight of their ambition often outweighs their resources or technical prowess. Certain scenes feel exactly like something I would expect from A Nightmare on Elm Street, with inanimate objects personifying themselves and inflicting themselves on unsuspecting victims. There is a scene where a prison guard is massacred by, like, Rebar, electricals, and then, his brutalized corpse spills out from the ceiling into the cafeteria, and it feels exactly like the kind of thing I would expect to see in A Nightmare on Elm Street. It is also just a distinct, memorable scene in its own right. Kudos to the practical work here by William Butler.

All in all, what does 1987’s Prison add up to? First and foremost, I want to say that I like the concept of the film. I can’t name a lot of horror movies that happen inside of a prison. Also, I did a little research for the film, and it was actually filmed inside of a real life penitentiary that had been vacated, and the filmmakers more or less had free rein to ransack the place if it meant for a cool shot. The acting is alright. I wouldn’t say anyone had a star making performance in this film, but I did, honestly and truly, like Viggo Mortensen’s subdued, quiet portrayal of the lead protagonist Burke. Likewise, Lane Smith delivers a solid, Nixon-esque performance as the prison’s warden. He does a lot of the narrative’s heavy-lifting and acts as a polar opposite to the more quiet Burke. The special effects, at times, are a little hokey, but there were a couple cool and creative scenes like the one I mentioned. I also appreciated the approach, which I thought was fairly restrained and disciplined. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and, while it does have its hokier moments, a lot of them can be chalked up to cheesy special effects and not because the film itself lost its game of chicken.

At the same time, I will admit that the ghost story itself was fairly unimaginative on a narrative front, and for a film with this thin of a story, it is difficult to justify its runtime of an hour and forty-two minutes. That isn’t an ungodly amount of time for a film, but it’s a good length for a horror film, and an incredibly long length for an Empire film, and I’ll be frank, I felt it pretty hard by the end. A lot of my appreciation for the film’s more slow burned approach comes because of how antithetical it is to the approach usually implored by Empire, and that appreciation may not lend itself to you.

In summation though, I was genuinely surprised by how much I came away appreciating Prison. It succeeds as both a halfway decent horror film and a halfway decent prison movie, and feels very much like Renny Harlin’s audition for his next film.

Rating: – 2.5 out of 5.0