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.