With Wyoming running out of space for its inmates, the decision to reopen the decrepit Wyoming State Penitentiary is made. Brought on to oversee the operation is the infamously hard-assed Warden Eaton Sharpe (Lane Smith) who had been, years earlier in 1956, a hard-assed guard around the time a prisoner named Charlie Forsythe was put to death in the prison’s electric chair. Against the protests from a plucky young prison board rep, Katherine Walker (Chelsea Field), Sharpe has a shipment of prisoners brought in who will be responsible for cleaning up the facility. Among the batch is Burke (Viggo Mortensen in one of his first film roles) who bears a striking resemblence to Forsythe. When the wall sealing the execution room is broken through, something evil is unleashed and prisoners begin dying in horrible ways and whatever-the-evil-is looks to be aiming for Warden Sharpe.
The first striking thing about Prison is how seriously it takes itself and how well this works in its favor. Coming out at the tail end of the ’80s when the choices were well-established horror franchises descending into self-mockery and embarrassing attempts to reinvigorate tired characters, hilarious low-budget knockoff failures, and tongue-in-cheek send-ups, Prison bucked the trend by drawing inspiration from haunted house films as well as ’80s special effects horrors and created an effective, adult experience. It’s ironic, then, that newcomer Renny Harlin would next go on to direct A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, the point at which that series took its fatal step over the cliff.
Prison unfolds as a mystery, dark secrets that have created this vengeful spirit are slowly revealed in between each moment of chaos. It wouldn’t be inappropriate to describe the film as Shawshank meets Poltergeist as it is equal parts prison drama and ghost flick, but that would be downplaying just how brutal the film is. The spirit of Forsythe dispatches prisoners in horrible ways (for example, one prisoner in solitary confinement is burned alive with no way to escape) and the special effects are quite good, particularly a sequence involving barbed wired and the simple reverse photography trick that has one of the greatest death scene punchlines ever. The body count is relatively low but each one actually hurts and has a bearing on the plot. And in the final scenes, as one would come to expect from the man who shot one of the greatest explosions of all time in The Long Kiss Goodnight, there’s the spectacular destruction of a car that looks like it could take out a city block. It’s impressive stuff.
As the film plays out, the gravitas of the situation is conveyed well, and kept grounded, by the unusually strong (for this type of picture) cast. Mortensen’s charisma is immediately apparent even at this early stage in his career, his chiseled good looks resting on top of a brooding badassness that makes him easily watchable but believable when it comes to his heroics. The reliable Lane Smith (probably most remembered as the District Attorney in My Cousin Vinny) is intense as Warden Sharpe, with a performance ranging from unstable dynamite to the sort of fire of brimstone outbursts reminiscent of Ned Beatty in Network. Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister (Friday) makes a memorable appearance as does Lincoln Kilpatrick who turns his role as a prisoner who was at the prison in 1956 when Forsythe was executed and now holds the key to damning secrets into the touching, heartfelt center of the film.
Not quite forgotten but definitely overlooked (maybe because people flock too often to Craven’s brain dead Shocker too quickly and feel burned by prison horror?), Prison reminds us that horror films can be well filmed and acted, fun, mysterious, brutal, and trashy all at the same time. It is a film easy to recommend as it is eager to please and succeeds at every turn, Harlin poured everything he had into Prison, it was a “make or break” film for him. The movie is also a reminder that there was a time when Charles Band’s name on a production wasn’t a kiss of death, there was a heyday for both his Empire Pictures and Full Moon, and among the fun b-movie shlockfests that were bred of that period, there are a few, like Prison, that are damn fine.
Terror Tuesday godfather and world-class emcee Zack Carlson primed the audience for the Prison experience well, telling tales of how the film was shot on location at an abandoned prison and about Mortensen’s dedication to his role (he broke his arm during the electrocution scene and for another scene waded through stagnant, sewage-filled water). I suspect even without this great intro the audience would have enjoyed the heck out of the flick, but everyone being pumped added an electricity to the experience. It’s been a while since we’ve had cheers at a great scene at Terror Tuesday and there were no less than 3 such moments of applause during Prison.