As the video revolution of the ’80s proved more profitable than any other facet of the fledging multimedia, distributors were desperate for anything that would make for a viable VHS presentation. Naturally, the simplest genre to jump on was horror. For as long as there was an outlet for motion pictures, macabre has been seen as the easiest way to make a mega-fast buck in the business. Since most home video fans were adolescents, unable to access these slice and dice spectacles theatrically because of the everpresent “R” rating, dumping as many onto the easily rentable VCR arena seemed like a solid idea. As part of Empire Pictures exploitation-oriented production ideals, which included such schlock classics as Ghoulies, Zone Troopers, From Beyond, Creepazoids and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-a-Rama, a take on what is perhaps the most terrifying place for most people – prison – was commissioned. Written by company scribe C. Courtney Joyner, who himself would give birth to such future cinematic cheese as Puppet Master III, The Class of 1999 and Dr. Mordrid, this latest effort would be another in a long line of potentially profitable titles for the inventive entertainment entity.
Somehow, the filmic fates smiled on the simply named Prison, providing it with a stellar cast that included future stars Viggo Mortensen and Lane Smith, and an inventive novice Finnish director named Renny Harlin. Making his American moviemaking debut, Harlan wanted to impress Western audience with his style and cinematic sparkle. Taking the standard storyline, he added substantial visual panache to a film’s basic vengeful spirit plot. When an old abandoned prison is reopened to accommodate that bureaucratic certainty known as overcrowding, an ancient evil is reawakened. Becoming part of the structure itself, the malevolent force (the remnants of an inmate wrongfully executed years before) manipulates wires, walls and other intimate elements to wield its wicked payback. In the process, guards are garroted, inmates are maimed, and secrets long buried in the prison grounds return from the grave to kick ass and take names. While much of the movie seemed silly, and overloaded with jailhouse jocularity, Harlin hemmed in the more ridiculous aspects to deliver a fascinating piece of horror pop art.
By utilizing a real rundown penitentiary (the brooding Wyoming State Prison) and accenting the acting and effects, Harlin avoided many of the frustrating formulas that fluster your basic scary movie. Thanks to the atmosphere of dread inherent in the backdrop and the gory greatness of various set piece deaths, instead of a typical trip into direct to video drek, Empire ended up with a wonderfully effective fright film. Harlin’s handling of the project was so well-received that he was immediately hired to direct A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Child, which in turn lead to his leap into the big time – helming the Die Hard sequel Die Harder. Sadly, most fright fans have forgotten, or even worse, have yet to see this excellent exercise in terror. Long unavailable in any format – and YET to be released on DVD – this is one lost fright flick that could really benefit from a digital resurrection. Prison may not be the best convict-based creature feature ever made, but it’s certainly worth an aluminum disc revisit. It stands decapitated head and shoulders about its ’80s overkill brethren.