Remember Renny Harlin? Because he remembers you… And more importantly, he remembers the support you used to give to his films. Die Hard 2! Cliffhanger! The Long Kiss Goodnight! But it was his 1999 masterpiece, Deep Blue Sea, that marked the last time audiences would love (even ironically) a film of his. Would it surprise you to learn that he’s made seven features since then?
But two years before he took over the reins on John McClane’s slow descent into redundancy, Harlin birthed two horror films unto the world. One featured Freddy Krueger’s fourth foray into malleable teenage minds, and the other was an original supernatural tale from the writer of not one, but two entries in the Trancers series!
Welcome to Prison.
Several prisoners die due to supernatural shenanigans.
One guy is baked and charred to a crisp, another has pipes shoved through his skin, another is wrapped tight in barbed wire… Of course, the warden suspects they’re all due to prisoner on prisoner violence, but that’s movie wardens for you. The madness continues once he catches on, though, and we get a guy carving his own chest, loads of gunshot victims and more.
None! This is not a bad thing, though, seeing as the film almost exclusively stars grungy-looking male convicts. They do strip down to their underoos on more than one occasion, though. Okay, fine, we also get a brief glimpse of Viggo Mortensen’s behind.
Do the crime, die a horrible death at the murderous and ghostly hands of a long-ago executed convict.
Warden Eaton Sharpe (the wonderful Lane Smith) is hired as warden of a recently reopened prison, but since the place is in such bad shape their prisoner population begins light with only a few dozen. Among them is a car thief named Burke (Viggo Mortensen) who wants nothing more than to be left alone but instead finds himself playing hero and fending off threats from convicts and guards alike. It seems bad things once happened at this prison, things Sharpe may have had a hand in, and soon the building’s new residents find themselves under attack from a vengeful, creative and murderous entity.
Prison was Harlin’s first American film, and while it faced a bumpy road on its way to audiences, it’s a good enough resume-builder to have landed him A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master that same year. It’s easy to see why, too, as the movie accomplishes quite a bit with very little.
This was Mortensen’s first lead role, too, but he delivers with a calm and extremely cool persona who holds his own against the more traditional thugs. Smith is equally impressive in a role that makes great use of his appealingly antagonistic abilities. Like Paul Gleason, William Atherton and J. T. Walsh, he’s a master at playing characters we love to hate.
These two dueling performances are set against a movie that looks and feels a bit bigger than its miniscule budget should have allowed. Cinematographer Mac Ahlberg makes great use of the prison’s dark corners and shafts of light, and wide shots in the prison yard and in the large, open cell area show impressive depth of action. The special effects are a mix of ’80s-style “electricity” animation and wonderfully bloody practical effects for mangled and twisted bodies, which were made by John Buechler and his crew.
C. Courtney Joyner‘s script won’t necessarily win awards for originality, but he keeps the story moving with character work and normal prison action alongside the unfolding mystery and terror.
Prison-set horror films are a small subgenre to be sure, but it’s unfortunate this one spent so much time floating in VHS-only obscurity while lesser examples like The Horror Show and Shocker found wider audiences in theaters. Harlin creates some real atmosphere, and the action/horror sequences are effective and fun.
Scream Factory’s Collector’s Edition Blu-ray/DVD combo represents the film’s first appearance on disc, and Harlin and company couldn’t have asked for a better home. The video looks sharp and clean with the blacks and gory colors looking quite good. It’s not loaded with extras, but both Harlin’s commentary and the making-of are packed with interesting tidbits on the film’s production.
- Hard Time: The Making of ‘Prison’ [38:00] – Irwin Yablans recalls the origin of the film as him thinking, “There’s never been a horror movie in a prison!” Boom. He offered the gig to Harlin when the director was living in his car “with his Finnish girlfriend.” The director also offers his theory as to why you don’t see a lot of prison-set horror movies. He has a point. Kane Hodder also makes an appearance, as he was the film’s stunt coordinator.
- German trailer
- Poster & Still gallery
- Audio Commentary with Renny Harlin
Prison is a fun and visually impressive little horror film that’s good enough to make you wonder why exactly it took 25 years for it to hit DVD/Blu-ray (per Yablans, the issue was due to legal wranglings). It features a simple enough revenge story at its core, but the performances, practical effects and terrifically claustrophobic feel make it well deserving of Scream Factory’s fantastic efforts.
Prison is available for pre-order on Blu-ray/DVD combo from Amazon