Prison (1988)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2013-03-12 01:59

Written by: Irwin Yablans (story), C. Courtney Joyner (screenplay)
Directed by: Renny Harlin
Starring: Lane Smith, Viggo Mortensen, Chelsea Field

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

ďI thought bustin' cars was your thing."
"Well a car ain't nothing but a series of locks. Older the lock, easier it is. And this place... is old."

Forgetting for a moment the quality of Prison (donít worry, weíll eventually get around to how it kind of rules), itís hard to overstate its importance in importing Finnish director/demigod Renny Harlin to the Hollywood scene. After directing a few things in his homeland, Harlin was tapped by Halloween producer Irwin Yablans to helm this ghastly splatter flick, which turned few heads upon its (limited) release in early 1988. However one of those heads did belong to New Line CEO Robert Shaye, who was so impressed that he attached Harlin to direct A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 that very same year; as such, Prison has become known as the film that brought Harlin to Elm Street (and more people have seen its poster hanging in the background of Dream Master than have seen the actual film), which is great since his entry was the last film in that series to get things (mostly right). However, Prison's reputation is also a bit of a shame because it stands as a pretty solid horror film in its own right.

In 1968, an unseen inmate is led to the electric chair under the watchful eye of Warden Eaton Sharpe (Lane Smith) and summarily fried to death. 20 years later, Sharpe is still haunted by the memory in his dreams, and fate conspires to bring him back to the same Wyoming penitentiary that he once ruled within an iron fist. While the building may appear to be dilapidated and vacant, itís still occupied by a malevolent force that starts picking off the new inmates in gruesome fashion.

Oddly enough, Prison actually doesnít feel much like a typical Harlin film, as itís pretty far removed from his usual turbo-charged sense of style. Instead, the film is kind of remarkably restrained and suitably creepy, with a slow build that introduces a worthwhile group of characters. If not for the obvious horror trappings (the music, the subtle, supernatural flourishes, etc.), Prison would feel like a grungy, gritty take on Cool Hand Luke, with Burke (Viggo Mortensen) taking on the mantle of the brash inmate. Heís not quite as antagonistic as Paul Newmanís indelible, but heís pretty unflappable all the same as a laconic badass. The film doesnít stop with him, though, as Burke is surrounded by a sturdy stable of fellow prisoners, including his elderly cell-mate (Lincoln Kilpatrick). A few other familiar faces show up, such as Tiny Lister and Tom Everett, so thereís a pretty decent ensemble waiting to be mutilated here.

When that starts to happen, itís easy to see why Shaye could envision Harlinís move to Elm Street. The death sequences are of the elaborate, spectacular sort that Freddy was beginning to perpetrate by that point; I donít know that thereís anything that tops the infamous roach transformation from Dream Master, but guys are melted in their cells, shredded by barbed wire, and even consumed by the prison machinery itself. Thereís no shortage of impressive effects work accompanying all of this, particularly in the form of gnarled corpses brought to grisly life (or death, I guess) by John Carl Buechler and stuntman Kane Hodder, who would immediately reteam for Friday the 13th VII. Hodderís commitment here (which included putting live worms in his mouth to complete an effect) actually landed him the role of Jason, so Prison was kind of like the farm club for the big franchises in í88. He actually only appears as the undead, vengeful prisoner at the filmís climax since the character is more of a ghost, but that lone appearance is quite a scene-stealer.

Even though you might expect Harlin to give way to the effects and turn Prison into an overblown splatter show, he resists the urge and even manages to tease out the true nature of its mystery. From the outset, itís pretty obvious that the unseen death row inmate from the prologue has returned to seek vengeance since Sharpe somehow wronged him twenty years earlier. Despite the predictability, thereís some wrinkles thrown into the backstory that also connect to a couple of the current inmates, too, so the climax is filled with plot twists and gore. I also enjoyed how Harlin didnít forget the entire cast of inmates, who are forced to band together despite their previous scraps; theyíre also an oddly likable bunch of convicts, but the film presents them in a favorable light throughout. Not only are they portrayed as victims of an inconsiderate system thatís dumped them in a building that should be condemned, but theyíre also downright nice guys compared to Sharpe. Smith infuses the stock hardass warden role with a broad despicability; heís sort of a prison warden by way of a perpetually drunk, abusive dad, and the film revels in building him up just to rip him down.

Prison is certainly an oddball entry in the Harlin canon; in addition to being largely bereft of his overt loudness, the film is also grimy and unpolished, completely unwashed of the studio slickness that would refine his later work. Such an aesthetic is appropriate in this case considering the setting, and Harlin really submerges viewers into this claustrophobic, grubby hell. The actual state prison is almost a star itself, and the director leaves no filthy corner unexplored. If youíre to consider Prison as the work of the auteur Harlin, you can hear his distinct voice in the filmís jovial, jaunty qualities (and the explosions, of course); sure, itís dingy and gory, but itís also a delightful and entertaining fusion of ghost stories and slasher flicks. Itís essentially a campfire tale for the big house, which is sort of how Yablans pitched it. His actual descriptionóďHalloween in prisonĒólays bare his intentions; the producer of course spent years chasing that former glory but never quite tracked it down (even this filmís winding, wending POV-shot opening sequence is a clear attempt to ape the beginning of Halloween). Prison falls short of Carpenterís masterpiece, of course, but itís nothing to be ashamed of.

One might assume differently, given the filmís somewhat tortured release history. The film was actually completed in í86 but didnít see theater screens until two years later thanks to Empire Picturesís bankruptcy; even though it was eventually rescued, it was only dumped on a handful of scenes and died a quick death at the box office. In the following years, it rightfully gained a cult following, which still wasnít enough to bring the film to DVD until Shout Factory finally graced it with a well-deserved special edition. Another Scream Factory offering, the Collectorís Edition features both Blu-ray and DVD presentations, with the former serving as a solid way to view the film (the volume on the 5.1 DTS-MA track is a tad soft, though). The special features are another well-rounded set that include a commentary with Harlin, a poster and stills gallery, a PDF copy of the script, and ďHard Time: The Making of Prison,Ē another signature Scream Factory retrospective featuring the crew (but sadly, not much of the cast). For those who have longed to see this film done justice (or to just see it at all), Scream Factory has made it worth the wait. Hopefully this allows the film to step out of the shadows of its more famous late 80s companions; a lot of films like this end up being more interesting for their behind-the-scenes anecdotes, but this isnít one of them. Buy it!

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