PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

'Prison: The Collector's Edition' Is a Fine Reissue of the 1988 Viggo Mortensen Horror Nugget

What's more dangerous than a convicted criminal with nothing to lose? The answer: a convicted criminal's ghost who has already lost everything. Pass the popcorn, please.


Director: Renny Harlin
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Lane Smith, Chelsea Fields, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Ivan Kane, Tom "Tiny" Lister
Distributor: Shout! Factory
Studio: Empire Pictures
Release date: 2013-02-19

Against all odds, this is a pretty great little movie. Shot in 1988 with a young Viggo Mortensen with Finnish director Renny Harlin at the helm, Prison manages to parlay its low budget into some pretty effective scenes. It's helped immensely by decent special-effects work and solid performances from a committed cast, including Lane Smith as evil prison warden Eaton Sharpe. Throw in plenty of atmospheric lighting, some genuinely jolting moments, a set that's reconstructed from an abandoned prison and a supporting cast made up of real prisoners serving time, and you've got the formula for a nifty little thriller.

Equal parts ghost story and jailhouse drama, Prison makes good use of its locale. From the opening scene, when a condemned prisoner is walked to the electric chair, until its final moments, little time is wasted in getting the story rolling and in keeping it moving along.

In brief: the ghost of an executed prisoner returns decades later to wreak havoc on the man who condemned him. That's all you really need to know going in. Sure, there are details and subplots and complications, not to mention a twist at the end (that you can probably see coming from a mile away), but that's all just window dressing. The point is, what's more dangerous than a convicted criminal with nothing to lose? The answer: a convicted criminal's ghost who has already lost everything. Pass the popcorn, please.

This was an early role for Mortensen, who would go on to fame in The Lord of the Rings, Eastern Promises and The Road, among other films. It's interesting to watch him here as he channels a James Dean vibe, with his wedge-cut hair and sulky, almost shy delivery. He rises to the occasion when the dramatic scenes demand it, but for much of the movie his presence borders on the self-effacing, in contrast to his later work.

Mortensen is ably supported by a group of actors playing his fellow inmates, including Ivan Kane as an Italian stallion nicknamed Lasagna, and Tom "Tiny" Lister playing an enormously buff guy named, of course, Tiny. Rounding out the prison cast are the real prisoners themselves, inmates at a Wyoming state penitentiary who were shuttled over from an existing facility to the abandoned one where filming took place. Their faces and body language lend an air of quiet menace to even the most innocuous scenes—not that many scenes here qualify as "innocuous".

The story arc is predictable enough—vengeful spirit returns from the grave and, well, wreaks vengeance—but the film's visual flair and storytelling momentum keep the formula fresh. Constricted by a low budget, the director and crew do a fine job of suggesting menace via plenty of shadows, lightning bolts and bursts of otherworldly blue glare, along with a score that helps propel things along without ever seeming overbearing. The action sequences are well-executed, exciting without being confusing, and—sorry to keep harping on this—are all the more effective for being set in the claustrophobic confines of a prison.

Shout! Factory's series of horror/slasher reissues from the '80s, under its imprint Scream! Factory, continues to impress with its pairing of excellent prints in DVD/blu-ray packages with interesting extras. The picture quality here is superb, with clear sound and a sharp image that's never muddy despite the many shadowy nighttime scenes. Short of a Criterion Collection release, this 2-disc release is likely to be the cleanest copy of the film that you'll ever see.

Included on the disc is a 38-minute documentary on the making of Prison entitled "Hard Time", which features interesting recollections from director Harlin as well as producer Irwin Yablans and executive producer Charles Band. Among other topics, the use of prisoners in the filming is discussed, as well as the special effects (which are impressive for a movie of this budget). Other features are less interesting—an audio commentary from Harlin which is more enthusiastic than enlightening, some stills of the Wyoming prison where the movie was shot, and a couple of trailers—but also included is a pdf file of the original first-draft screenplay, of potential interest to would-be screenwriters and others curious about the machinations of putting together a film.

Not all of Scream! Factory's reissues are this good—in fact, many of them have been so-so at best. But viewers looking for one more nugget of '80s horror are in luck: this is a fine example of what can be done with limited means and a concerted effort on the part of all involved.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.