Shout! Factory // 1988 // 104 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // March 11th, 2013
Horror has a new home.
Prison is a neat little hybrid horror from the producer of Halloween, the (future) director of Die Hard 2, and the (future) star of A History of Violence. Coming at the end of the horror-glutted '80s, Prison kinda got lost in the shuffle; now, thanks to the magic of Blu-ray (and Shout! Factory's Scream Factory label), the film is up for a well-deserved second look.
The film offers a standard-issue prison movie, complete with psycho guards and a psycho warden, and overlays the proceedings with a supernatural vengeance story. It's an effective horror/thriller, and one of the most underrated chillers of the '80s.
It seems that 30 or so years ago, an inmate was executed for killing another inmate at Creedmore prison. Creedmore closed some time after, but now it's being re-opened to help ease overcrowding in some of the other prisons. The warden, Ethan Sharpe (Lane Smith, My Cousin Vinny), was a guard at the old prison who oversaw the execution. He's now a man on the edge, given to nightmares and outbursts, and evidently a big believer in keeping prisoners in line by any means possible.
Sharpe seems particularly shocked to meet a young car thief, Burke (Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises); another prisoner, Cressus (Lincoln Kilpatrick, Soylent Green), who had also been at Creedmore with Sharpe, has a strange reaction to meeting Burke, as well.
When the warden decides to have the old, sealed-up execution chamber opened up, Burke and another prisoner are chosen for the job. Bad move, that. As the prisoners knock down the chamber's wall, something -- a force -- is released; soon, mysterious and grisly deaths are occuring, and no one, no prisoners or guards, is safe.
Prison wants to have it both ways, as a men in jail actioner and as a horror movie in which the characters are trapped in a place with a murderous spirit. That the film largely succeeds is due to a solid script, strong and sure direction by Renny Harlin, and a fine cast led by a young Mortensen. Thanks to his James Dean-ish good looks and brooding persona, Mortensen is the nominal hero; in truth, though, young Viggo is one of the least interesting characters here. Far more enjoyable is the over-the-top performance by Smith as the evil and crazy warden, who somehow is able to go full-tilt nuts without turning it all into a parody. Character actors Tom Everett, Tiny Lister, Arlen Dean Snyder, and Lincoln Kilpatrick also offer fun turns as inmates and guards. Yes, they're all typical prison movie "types," but that's infinitely preferable to the standard horror movie "types" that were endemic to these sorts of films (and really, still are).
Harlin doesn't toss all the cards on the table from the outset; while it's not exactly difficult figuring it all out, there are some decent surprises, along with a better-than-average share of shocks and gory kills. The only thing that really pulls the film down is a superfluous prison inspector character played by Chelsea Field. I really think this character is there only to have a woman onscreen.
There are plenty of grue scenes, but the film isn't stacked up with them; more than slasher effects, Harlin is concerned with suspense and atmosphere, which he gets in spades from the old prison that was used as a location. While the wind-down is a little disappointing, there are some very cool bits of business along the way, including a couple of elaborate send-offs, one for a guard, another for an inmate.
Prison is a fun, largely forgotten film, hardly the sort of thing you'd expect to get a cool "special edition"-style release, but that's just what Shout! Factory has done here. Prison (Blu-ray) is a great disc. The low-budget source material isn't exactly stellar, but the high-def image is probably the best this film will ever look. While I wouldn't call it crisp, it's certainly clear, sports a pretty good level of detail, and the many dark scenes don't come off as muddy. It's a pretty fine job all around. Ditto the audio, which offers the choice of an effective, if useless, DTS Surround track or a DTS Mono track; both feature clear renderings of voices and effects.
Shout! Factory offers up quite a nice array of supplemental material. There's a feature-length interview with Harlin, in which he talks about his career and offers up some stories about the making of Prison. We also get an excellent Making of piece, "Hard Time: The Making of Prison," which features input from all sorts of people, including Harlin, Irwin Yablans (producer of Halloween, who also produced this and contributed to the story), writer C. Courtney Joyner, executive producer Charles Band, actor Tom Everett, and others. Rounding out the set, we get the U.S. and German theatrical trailers, and a poster and stills gallery that includes photos of the Wyoming State Prison, where the film was shot; there's also a DVD copy of the film, and for the geek inside of you (well, the geek inside of me, at any rate), the cover art is reversible.
Lately, Shout! Factory has been turning out special edition Blu-rays for a number of lower tier, '80s vintage horror films, as part of its Scream Factory line. These include Halloween II, TerrorVision, Deadly Blessing, and The Funhouse; apparently, all these feature good-looking transfers and new or substantially new supplements. If this means Shout! Factory is becoming more competitive with companies like Blue Underground and Synapse, then more power to them.
A better-than-average '80s horror movie gets a better-than-average Blu release from Shout! Factory's Scream Factory.
No one is going to prison over this one.
Review content copyright © 2013 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Promo Material
* DVD Copy