Judge David Johnson wants to know why evil never dies. Seriously, someone answer that question for him.
An abandoned prison. A dark past. And an evil that will not die.
Direct-to-DVD auteur Kevin Van Hook has crafted a haunted prison horror film starring Jake Busey (Starship Troopers) in all his toothy glory and a flock of killer, spectral prisoners.
Facts of the Case
Two groups of victims—er, characters, wind up at the infamous Isla del Roca prison, a place renowned for the evil that has transpired within its walls over the years. The worst of the worst were housed in the cells of the prison, and one day the pent-up evil that had been festering for so long, broke loose—and with it, all hell. After a riot left prisoners and guards dead and mutilated, the prison was shut down and abandoned.
In the present day, Isla del Roca is notorious for its rumored haunting, leading an enterprising group of young filmmakers to make their bones and create a documentary about the horrors of the prison. They first interview one of the surviving guards (Stacey Keach, Prison Break), and then pack up their gear and head to the prison. What they aren't prepared for is the gang of bank robbers taking shelter in the building, following a botched robbery. The leader of the group is Marco (Busey), a violent man with a loose grasp of reality and a supernatural connection to the prison. Soon, both groups will have to work together to survive the onslaught of the prison's evil.
I'll give this much to Kevin Van Hook—he knows how stage and inventive kill scene. Van Hook, who's made some direct-to-DVD and made-for-TV movies that I didn't hate, has embraced the freedom that an unrated release can grant, and he's lathered his production in blood and guts. Plenty of interesting death scenes on display here, some of which don't make a molecule of sense, but who cares. There is enough carnage to gain the film entry into the hallowed halls of the Wow That's a Lot of Gore Pantheon. Highlights include an unfortunate mishap with a license-plate cutting machine, an upside-down impalement, haunted barbed-wire mayhem and a remarkably strong, torso-cleaving ceiling fan
This level of violence is the most distinguishing characteristic of the film, which limps through a clichéd, convoluted plotline that exists solely to tie the grisly murders together. As far as haunted INSERT EDIFICE OF CHOICE HERE films go, the story is neither refreshing nor particularly engaging. There's some kind of evil lurking in the prison, and the source of that malicious, supernatural savagery is revealed in confusing increments until the big finale, which actually gets even more confusing. The ending, usually the lone engine that drives my interest in the narratives of these horror films, falls apart, culminating in an overall unsatisfying plot.
I don't think this is necessarily deal-breaker, because a) the story, even as weak as it is, isn't unbearable and b) Van Hook manages to nail other genre-necessary elements. Besides the gore factor, the characters, while tried-and-true horror archetypes, aren't as irritating as they could be. The acting is bush-league, with the stand-outs being Jake Busey, who knows how to do "psycho" as well as anyone, and Jamie Elle Mann, as the plucky female lead Jasmine, manages to successfully blend spunk with sexiness. The girl has the unenviable task of being covered in brown muck (raw sewage in the script) and washing off in a sensual prison shower scene. It's definitely the best quasi-erotic half-naked excrement rinse-off sequence I've seen this week.
The film sports a good, suspenseful atmosphere, too, bolstered by a slick visual quality and a serviceable score. Though the storytelling doesn't push the pacing on its own merits, the smoke and mirrors of the production—musical cues, cheap scares, strategically placed death scenes, interesting visual effects—lends a professional, well-done look to the film and inject the proceedings with a solid degree of edginess. The ghost effects are unique, though they too stumble in quality in the end as well.
Video: a very clean, strongly colored 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. Audio: 5.1 surround that works the ambiance of the prison effectively. Extras: an amusing audio commentary with Van Hook and members of the cast, a boring exposition-heavy extended scene, still gallery and production art, the screenplay on DVD-ROM and two making-of featurettes—"An Axe to Grind," an overall look at the production and "License to Thrill," detailing the license-plate cutting massacre.
Death Row is a serviceable horror outing, and while the story leaves much to be desired, the eerie atmosphere and setting, okay-for-death-magnets characters and righteous kills spare the film from my discontent.
Enough prison time has already been served.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Starz Home Entertainment
• Director and Cast Commentary
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