Director Kevin VanHook (VOODOO MOON) is no stranger to the small-screen marketplace. Like his last film SLAYER, his latest project made its debut back in October on the Sci-fi channel under the glaringly obvious title HAUNTED PRISON. Not a lot of subtlety there! But, this is pain-by-numbers genre filmmaking and the hallmark of Sci-fi channel productions. Sure some of them come off covered in a little less scum that others, but the bulk are wallowing in a mire of mediocrity. VanHook’s films more often than not rise above the muck—they hardly shine, but the cast he assembles generally hold their own and often elevate the teeth grinding simplicity of the scripts far beyond the source material.
This time it’s Jake Busey’s turn to give it the old college try. Busey (STARSHIP TROOPERS) is hardly ever the lead in motion pictures; he’s just too damn odd for Hollywood to fully embrace. In fact, like his father, Jake really knows how to impress in precious little doses. For DEATH ROW, Busey more or less gets center stage and with that responsibility he spends most of the film in a rapid descent to total madness. You see, Busey plays Marco, and Marco is a jewel thief, who along with a gang of RESERVOIR DOGS rejects has just royally screwed up a robbery. In the heat of the moment they made off with loot, but only after suffering a wounded comrade and killing half-a-dozen bystanders.
Now, Marco has taken his team to an old abandoned prison—one he knows well. Marco’s grandfather was an inmate and later a guard at the infamous Isla de la Roca maximum-security penitentiary before a violent uprising left hundreds of people dead. The decrepit establishment left in that wake is the setting for much more bloodshed to come. The fly in the ointment of Marco’s grand plan—aside from the nasty spirits held inside the walls—is a group of college documentarians, who are shooting footage of the forsaken establishment in an effort to give record to the horrors committed inside.
As I said before, VanHook has a knack for casting and this time around the team assembled aside Busey includes Stacy Keach (AMERICAN HISTORY X), Danny Trejo (FROM DUSK TILL DAWN) and Shanna Collins (SUBLIME). The cast does one thing exceedingly well in the face of a script with more than its share of cliché’s – They act believable. The college kids seem like college kids. The crooks might be a little polished, but for the most part, they play their parts like actual human beings and not cardboard cutout characters. Sure they all make foolish decisions. Sure there are plot holes big enough to break out a cellblock worth of inmates, but the cast always looks like they’re doing what comes naturally to them—even if “naturally” equates to “stupid”. And, let’s face it, if horror movie characters all did the smart thing, there would have hardly ever be horror movies to begin with.
As far as effects go, the film has its moments, the biggest comes courtesy of a machine shop license plate cutter—and I’ll bet you can guess where that’s going. The only thing that didn’t work was the design of the spooks. They passed through the set like a group of castoffs from the Dark Castle productions of HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL and 13 GHOSTS only with little of the newness factor that made those ghouls somewhat interesting. Frankly, it might have been more frightening if the spirits had never actually manifested at all. That effect works when one of crew is carried away down the hall by unseen forces. Unfortunately, the unseen forces are revealed moments’ later strapping the poor bastard into an electric chair for some decidedly uninspired death throws.
You already know that Sci-fi Channel debuts are a disappointing lot and while DEATH ROW may not be epic storytelling, VanHook makes the film fun and keeps the kills coming and the blood flowing freely. But in the end, its Busey’s scenery chewing that makes the film more feast than famine.