Reviewed by Patrick Cooper
Scream Factory is releasing Renny Harlin’s 1988 film Prison for the first time on DVD/Blu-ray in the U.S. and after watching it, I honestly cannot believe it took this long. It’s better than most of the ‘80s horror films people “rediscover” on DVD. On a modest budget, Harlin and producers Irwin Yablans and Charles Band delivered a 60,000-volt prison riot filled with blistering gross-out effects, razor-sharp cinematography, and Viggo Mortensen’s best James Dean impression! Plus, it was filmed in a real abandoned prison and features heaps of real-life hardened cons as extras. If you’re not on-board for this one, get off my bus!
Lane Smith (Red Dawn) stars as hardass prison warden Eaton Sharpe. When the derelict Creedmore Prison is reopened after 30 years, Sharpe is put in charge. The place is in rough shape, so when a few busloads of inmates show up, Sharpe puts them to work. One of these inmates is Burke, a cool, quiet car thief played by Viggo Mortensen. From the bell him and Sharpe don’t get along, so Sharpe gives him a shit detail: knocking down a thick cement wall that’s covering up the old execution chamber. It doesn’t take Burke too long because he’s wicked strong for a scrawny dude and some old voodoo inmate is helping. Once they knock the wall down, an evil spirit escapes and goes on an electrically charged revenge rampage around the prison.
For the first 30 minutes there are no supernatural elements – it’s a straight up prison movie with all the conventions we’re used to. There’s the loveable, quirky convicts who aren’t all that bad, the dickhead warden who has no consideration for human dignity, and power plays out in the yard. This one inmate named Rhino tries to get Burke to be his bitch, but Burke grabs him by the nuts and shows him who’s tough. It’s a great moment. I learned in the commentary that Rhino was played by an actual inmate doing life for murder. When Renny called cut, Rhino would be put back in restraints until he was needed in another shot. Hot shit, huh?
There are loads of fantastic effects and kills in this film. The effects were done by John Carl Buechler, a Corman veteran who also did Ghoulies and TerrorVision. There’s all kinds of stuff like boiling skin, barbwire mummies, melting heads, and Kane Hodder as a dead guy. In short, the effects and stunts kick ass.
Some really great actors besides Viggo and Lane Smith populate the prison. Tommy “Tiny” Lister (No Holds Barred) is cellmates with a smart-mouth Italian named Lasagna who’s obsessed with Sly Stallone (it’s not as bad as it sounds and is pretty funny in parts – like when he gets shit for smuggling a Rambo poster into prison). There’s the wise old black inmate too, like Freeman in Shawshank. He’s played by Lincoln Kilpatrick (Soylent Green) and at first he seems really feeble, but as we all learn in life, old people are hard as hell. The only female at the sausage party is Chelsea Field (MOTU) who plays a humane prison reform board member who disapproves of Sharpe’s harsh methods.
The filmmakers talk in the features about how the original idea was to make Halloween set in a prison, but they scrapped that because what con is going to be afraid of some goon with a knife. They’ve all got shivs in their socks anyway. There is a Halloween vibe though, especially when the camera is slowly moving through the shadowed halls of the prison. It must’ve been a bitch to film in such confined spaces, but cinematographer Mac Ahlberg (Re-Animator) took advantage of the situation and he practically chokes you with this claustrophobic environment.
There’s plenty more to talk about, but I highly suggest you pick up this set. This is Scream Factory’s best release since the two Halloween sets last year and the Blu-ray is a phenomenal way to get acquainted with this lost classic.
Scream Factory presents Prison in 1080p HD 1.78:1 with DTS HD Master Audio. Besides some very minor scratches, the video is perfect – filled with deep contracts and strong details.
HARD TIME: THE MAKING OF PRISON (38:00): It seems like everyone was involved in this making of feature except the actors! Renny Harlin, Irwin Yablans, Charles Band, C. Courtney Joyner (screenwriter), Mac Ahlberg, and more are all here to give their insight and anecdotes. And there are some fantastic anecdotes, trust me.
I gotta say, I’m really happy Scream Factory compiled all the interviews into one long feature. On their releases for Deadly Blessing, The Funhouse, and Terror Train they made each interview it’s own feature, with a title and credit and everything. It was sort of annoying – maybe they did it because they were cranking them out so fast? I dunno. Either way I’m glad it’s one long feature on Prison.
AUDIO COMMENTARY WITH RENNY HARLIN: Renny talks about what it was like to come to America and break into the Hollywood scene, casting, the meaning of crucifixes in his films, and plenty of more insightful stuff. It’s definitely worth a listen.
POSTER AND STILL GALLERY
PDF OF THE FIRST DRAFT SCRIPT