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The Nostalgic Attic: Prison (1988)

28 November 2013

Prison (1988)

"Horror has a new home"

Renny Harlin seemed like the bright young hope for Hollywood in the late 80's. He had European-cool credibility but his sights were firmly set on American blockbuster films. After his first two lower budget American outings (which included the 4th instalment in The Nightmare on Elm Street series) were hits, he moved up the ladder and took hold of the sequel to possibly the biggest and most critically acclaimed action film of the 80's, Die Hard. That hit was followed up with the somewhat restrained Cliffhanger, another huge money maker for the time. Things were looking great; he could have been the next John McTiernan or Paul Verhoeven. Sadly, disaster struck in the form of Cutthroat Island, and was followed by several films that failed to do anything interesting, including The Long Kiss Goodnight, Deep Blue Sea and the truly horrible Exorcist prequel, The Exorcist: The Beginning. Looking at his CV it's easy to see that most films that bear his name feel fairly under baked, and his decline isn't really that surprising. So has he ever made a fully great film? Let's go back to the start and see with Prison.

Opening in 1956, Death Row inmate Charles Forsyth is sent to the chair for a crime he did not commit. The execution is watched over by Warden Sharpe (Lane Smith; My Cousin Vinny, Air America), a man conscious of the fact that Forsyth was innocent. Jump 30 years later, and there is a problem for the state prison system; mainly that it is jammed full of murderers and rapists, with nary a place to put them. It turns out that Creedmore prison closed shortly after the death of Forsyth, but the building still stands and looks to be the best option to house the scum of the country. Taking several bus-loads of thugs out to the dilapidated grounds, Sharpe plans on making them work for their lodgings, and get them to fix the place up around them.

Among those inmates is cool-headed Burke (Viggo Mortensen; Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, The Reflecting Skin, Young Guns II) and wizened black guy, Cresus (Lincoln Patrick; Fortress, Bulletproof). It doesn't take long for them to clash with the warden and other rowdy inmates, nor for the vengeful ghost of Forsyth to put in an appearance. It seems the old chap has been haunting the place, hoping that Warden Sharpe would show his face again. He also plans on taking his undead anger out on all the other prisoners too, and soon many of them are greeted by his electric glow late at night. One by one they are getting picked off, and soon they will all fall victim to the curse of the old Creedmore place.

Prison throws together the usual cliches of both the horror and prison movie genres, but somehow it all feels quite fresh and new. For a start, the production value is raised substantially by the use of the very real Old State Prison, in Wyoming. The building has some serious character and atmosphere, and would take a lot to not make it work on screen. The cells and rusted corridors have a fantastic sense of history and horror, and few films get to showcase such natural sets as extensively as Prison does (apart from the likes of Session 9, of course). Director Harlin does a fine job of staging his scenes within the confines of the building and grounds, and every shot crams as much of it into the frame as possible. 

It also helps that we have such great actors in the lead roles. The young looking Viggo does a fine job of calm and smart, and it's no surprise he had such a great early career before turning into the megastar he is these days. Patrick is good as the wise sidekick, and Lane Smith does his usual run of smarmy and unlikable to the best of his ability. We also get some other recognisable faces in the form of Tommy 'Tiny' Lister (Armed and Dangerous, No Holds Barred) Tom Everett (Best of the Best, Dances with Wolves) as Rabbit, and even a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance by Kane Hodder. 

The one thing that sucks the film down a notch is the inclusion of the very unnecessary female character, Katherine Walker (Chelsea Field; Commando, Masters of the Universe, Deathspa) as the one person clued in from the outside world as to what might be happening inside the prison. Her addition to the story only takes away the claustrophobia of the prison walls, and she brings very little to the story, at all. It feels like the producers felt the cast need a female, to either give the male audiences some possible hope of titillation, or to placate the girlfriends who might have been dragged to see it. It's sad, as it does mess with the tone of the film some what, but not enough to derail it even slightly.

Prison easily makes up for this misstep with the many great set pieces it squeezes in. All of the effects look great (both practical and optical) and some of the highlights include; a man being pierced with pipes then the gory mess dropping on the dining hall the next morning, and the infamous barbed-wire death scene. We also get some great flame deaths, and it all adds to the impending sense of doom. Viggo climbing the barbed-wire fence is also worth mentioning. By the time the climax rolls around we get more than enough beatings, shootings and death to keep the horror and guy fans happy. The ending isn't quite as exciting as it could be (the pacing feels a little slack) but it is nicely OTT, which does just fine.

As mentioned earlier, Harlin does a fine job with keeping the tone and atmosphere going throughout the film. It's a pity he was never this consistent again, as it really is his best all-round film. Despite doing huge budgets on Die Hard 2 and Deep Blue Sea, the films lacked severely in imagination. Prison has tons of it to spare, and a great style to boot. The cinematography is moody and perfectly suited, as is the score. In the late 80's there were a slew of prison-themed horror, such as The Chair and Shocker, but this one is definitely the best. It's about time it was re-discovered by horror fans.

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At 28 November 2013 at 11:11 , Blogger Wes M said...

Excellent review JP, I think you've convinced me to track this one down. Renny Harlin gets dismissed as a hack journeyman all too often, even by me, but I have good time for the Die Hard sequel, and Cliffhanger was Stallone's best film in almost a decade. If I had to name Harlin's masterpiece, I think it would be Dream Master, which I think is a pretty enjoyable chapter in the Elm Street saga, and a film that is aging well. I'd forgotten that Harlin directed the Exorcist sequel, it seems to have been displaced by Paul Schrader's equally uninteresting version, which reminds me that I must revisit Exorcist III one of the days. It's funny, watching the Prison trailer and seeing all those blue tendrils of electricity, truly an 80's special effect if I ever saw one ! I must admit, when you mentioned Chelsea Field my blood momentarily ran cold, as her wooden performance inflicted considerable damage on Richard Stanley's Dust Devil. I really had no idea she was in Commando, and at first I thought you got this wrong but sure enough, you're absolutely correct. I have no memory of her in this film ! Anyway, fantastic review JP. You're gonna have to unearth John McTiernan's 1986 debut Nomads after this !

At 28 November 2013 at 13:41 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Thanks Wes, I think it will definitely be a film you will enjoy. The new DVD will bring this to a wider audience, and I'll probably pick it up, even if my VHS is still looking good. Agreed on Die Hard 2, I have a lot of fun with it (I used to watch it as endlessly as the first) but critically the film is a mess. Cliffhanger got a lot of praise at the time, and rightly so, as it was a good change of pace for Stallone. Agreed on Dream Master, as it is pretty stylish, but now I kind of wish that he brought that grittiness that he had in Prison to the NOES series.

I was only eyeing up Nomads earlier, actually! Never seen it!

At 29 November 2013 at 00:18 , Blogger Wes M said...

Yep, I'm definitely gonna check it out now, thanks JP. I do enjoy 80's Horror a lot more these days. The Friday and Elm Street series I like very much, even something like Silver Bullet - these were films I was reared on, but then swore off when I discovered Dario Argento and European Cult Cinema, and became a bit snobby when it came to more palatable American Horror. So, I'm coming back to a lot of this stuff. I'd love to revisit Chuck Russell's 1988 remake of The Blob, The Hidden, or Warning Sign, three films in particular I remember with extreme fondness. Shocker though might have to sit it out for another decade...

At 2 December 2013 at 06:20 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

I was the same, got burned out on American horror in the mid/late 90's due to the Scream clones and the high gloss factor that entered the genre. Thankfully we had several decades worth of Euro nastiness to get us through! Nowadays, I'd much rather revisit these films than watch whatever Asian ghost-influenced horror that is coming from the states. I'm aware that there are some great flicks coming from the USA at the moment, but the bigger budget stuff can't hold a candle to the 80's output for sheer fun and imagination.

At 12 December 2013 at 04:24 , Blogger Doug Roos said...

Never heard of this. Definitely got to track it down. I love Die Hard 2. Sure, it doesn't hold a candle to the first film, but I think it's quite good and underrated especially with all the great supporting actors like William Sadler, John Amos, etc. Plus, Cliffhanger is excellent. Renny Harlin did have a great streak going there for a while. Didn't see Cutthroat Island, but I like The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Deep Blue Sea is kind of fun in a B-grade way. His Exorcist prequel was truly, truly awful though like you said. Actually, I like Schrader's Exorcist prequel Dominion.

At 5 February 2014 at 04:42 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Doug, I do actually agree with you, and I didn't mean to imply that his other films weren't good. Die Hard 2 is a rehash, but it is great fun. Cliffhanger is also pretty good, and fairly fresh for a 90's Stallone action film. Deep Blue Sea I saw in the cinema, and enjoyed it in a horror/B Movie way. Pity the guy just never truly got to make a few more action classics on more moderate budgets though.

At 7 June 2014 at 20:31 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

I had a good time with this one - saw it on VHS or cable, not sure which. This was another movie that had a competing production out somewhere around the same time - a "resurrected prisoner killing people in a prison" movie called Destroyer - with Lyle Alzado and Anthony Perkins.

At 9 June 2014 at 02:45 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

This one is definitely worth unearthing again, Craig, it holds up really well. Was unaware of that other prison film - will definitely look into it.


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