Thanks to the nature of filmmaking and distribution sometimes great films slip through the cracks, causing it to remain overlooked and unnoticed for decades. Such was the case with Prison, producer/writer Irwin Yablans’ (Halloween) attempt to bring horror to a wholly new setting. It’s a horror film with gory kills that marked a lot of historical moments behind the scenes. Executive produced by Charles Band and distributed by his small-scale distribution company Empire Pictures, Prison only saw a small theatrical release on March 4, 1988 before slipping into obscurity when Empire Pictures collapsed into bankruptcy. Now, Prison has finally broken free from its sentence of obscurity to find the audience it should have had 30 years ago.
This was a horror film that brought a lot of high caliber talent together both on screen and behind the scenes that provided a perfect storm for a film that stills holds up well today. Though Yablans may have an aptitude for producing, his original idea and script for Prison sounded cringe-worthy; he wanted to apply the Halloween formula to a prison setting. Luckily, screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner was brought on board and quickly convinced Yablans what a bad idea this would be. Why would prisoners, who likely would have shivs of their own, be afraid of a guy with a knife? The slasher idea was scrapped and traded in for a tale of ghostly revenge, though the gory deaths would remain.
So the plot transformed from a Michael Myers-like killer into one about a resurrected spirit of an executed prisoner seeking revenge against the prison’s new warden. Granted, it takes a little while to determine just what exactly the ghost is after, because the spirit seems to kill indiscriminately, and quite brutally. It’s a pleasant surprise, considering you wouldn’t expect much creativity involved with such a plain setting, but the film manages to offer some of the most imaginative kills.
The setting was a stroke of luck, too, with the Old State Prison in Rawlins, Wyoming, having recently closed not long prior to production, and had nearly everything required in the script. The prison even came with a gas chamber, which the production team converted to an electric chair execution chamber for Forsythe’s opening execution. Most of the extras came from a nearby, functioning prison, and with them armed guards. So there’s a level of authenticity on screen that I’m not so sure could be pulled off in the present day. Even one of the speaking parts, Rhino, was filled by a convict; Stephen E. Little was an actor/stuntman that got into a bar fight one day and killed the man he was fighting, so he happened to be a prisoner with a SAG card.
It was director Renny Harlin’s first American feature, giving him the entry point into Hollywood that would launch his extensive career. Prison also marked a major turning point for Kane Hodder. Already handling the stunt work on this film, his size further made him the perfect candidate to play the monstrous Forsythe in the climax when the original person in mind looked too lean and small. Special makeup effects supervisor John Buechler refitted the suit and makeup for Hodder, and Hodder even took his brief stint as the character to another level by offering to put nightcrawlers in his mouth to enhance the newly risen dead effect. It was because of the newly forged working friendship between Buechler and Hodder that would lead Buechler to bring in Hodder to play Jason Voorhees when he was hired to handle special effects for Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood. The rest, for Hodder, is horror history.
The fantastic cast rounded out the final piece of puzzle. When casting saw roughly 80 actors to fill the lead role, the moment they saw Viggo Mortensen it was a done deal. A young star on the rise, Mortensen had the mysterious quality needed to play Burke, while making him likable enough for the viewer to want to root for. He also handled almost all of his own stunts, a move that would earn him a stunt team t-shirt by Hodder by the end of production.
Prison is the perfect example of the collaborative nature of film, and the magic that happens when all of those moving pieces work well together. A great cast, the gory makeup work by Buechler, Harlin’s meticulous directing, Hodder’s stunt work, Band and Yablan’s guidance and input, and a haunting setting so authentic and bleak that it serves as a character on its own makes Prison age better than most films released decades after. Though there are not many prison set horror films in existence, this one sits at the top of the pack still 30 years later.