Stay off Judge Daryl Loomis' yard!
Get me out before they kill me.
I've been spending a lot of time in and around prisons lately. Well, at least in movieland, but those concrete walls and steel doors are starting to get to me. Maybe it's because I just watched one of the true greats of the prison genre in Riot in Cell Block 11, but there's something that seems lacking about On the Yard. While it seems to have everything one would want from the genre, it doesn't come together the way it should and, with a laughably stupid climax, it makes me really hope for parole.
Juleson (John Heard, Big) is serving a three-year stint in the joint and has just arrived at a new facility. He doesn't feel like he belongs with these people and, really, neither does the established hierarchy of prisoners. They are led by Chilly (Thomas Waites, The Clan of the Cave Bear), a tough customer with a hot cigarette trade and a deal with a corrupt guard to keep the good stuff coming in. Juleson winds up taking a loan for some smokes, but has to go through Chilly and tensions get hot when he's unable to repay the money.
On the Yard is a very typical, very average exploitation movie that is very much of its time. It's a little slow and doesn't look particularly great stylistically, but it's cheap, gritty and, at times, pretty effective. There are other times when it's very much not, and for some, these parts will break the film, but it's definitely not all bad.
Mostly, the performances are very respectable. This is a cheap production with, mostly, younger actors and they perform admirably, especially within the confines of a real Pennsylvania prison. Thomas Waites really excels in his first movie, while John Heard's character, though not as well written as Chilly, he does a good job with it. My favorite, though, is noted character actor Mike Kellin (Sleepaway Camp), whose slow and thoughtful ways are a nice counterpart to Chilly's aggressiveness. All the performances are believable and worth watching. The problems come from the rest of the stuff.
Director Raphael Silver (A Walk on the Moon) injects no level of style into the movie, shooting everything straight on and with absolutely no flair. He seems content to trade on the reality of the prison yard, but with nothing else to hang your hat on, it can only go so far. And then there's that climax, which involves a hot-air balloon prison escape that comes from nowhere. It's absurd and basically ruins any of the tension Silver built the rest of the time. I can't say it would be great without that awful taste left in my mouth necessarily, but with it, there was no chance of success.
On the Yard comes to DVD from Scorpion Releasing in a decent edition. The 1.78:1 anamorphic image appears to have seen a fair bit of restoration, with relatively strong colors and a surprisingly clean print. It's definitely not perfect, but it's better than a lot of similar stuff that I've seen. The sound isn't quite as strong, but it's fine with little background noise and perfectly clear dialog and music. The only extra is a thirty-minute interview with Thomas Waites, in which he talks about his career in general and On the Yard in particular.
For a low-rent exploitation prison movie, On the Yard isn't terrible, but it's a little slow and doesn't have the weight that better examples of the genre carry. For fans of the genre, this will most certainly suffice; it's gritty and the cast is pretty strong. But with extended periods of slowness and an absolutely ridiculous climactic scene, it's a little tough to recommend to anybody else very strongly.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Scorpion Releasing
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