Starring Lane Smith, Viggo Mortensen, Chelsea Field, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Tom Everett, Ivan Kane, Arlen Dean Snyder, André DeShields, Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister, Stephen E. Little, Mickey Yablans, Larry Flash Jenkins, Hal Landon Jr., Matt Kanen, Kane Hodder

Directed by Renny Harlin

Expectations: Looks awesome, it has a director that went on to better things, Viggo and gore… I should like this.

Prison has a ton of stuff going for it. It stars Lane Smith, a character actor you know and love but probably don’t recognize the name (I didn’t). It co-stars Viggo Mortensen very early in his film career. It’s directed by Renny Harlin who would later go on to direct such favorites as A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master & Die Hard 2. The film is also produced by Empire Pictures and the wonderful John Carl Beuchler is on FX duty. In addition to that, the script was written by C. Courtney Joyner who later went on to write Puppet Master III & write and direct Trancers III. How’s that for some talent?

The film opens with an execution scene from the prison’s past. Lane Smith escorts the condemned man to his death by electric chair, but the dreamy quality of the scene suggests that all is not as it seems. As this is an 80s horror film, one can only assume that his soul cannot rest! Thirty years later, overcrowding in the prison system forces the state to re-open a penitentiary long since closed. They recruit Lane Smith, one of the old guards there, to head up the place as warden. Smith is haunted by the memories surrounding the electrocution, penetrating his dreams nightly. Before long, crazy shit starts happening for reals at the prison. It first comes to head when two men in solitary get a visitation from a very unwelcome spirit.

The scene is shot with such skill, increasing the tension, the fear and the excitement with every cut. The evil prisoner’s soul is portrayed on-screen by a blinding blue light that seers skin on contact. The spirit heats up the solitary box like an oven, with the cell door changing colors to reflect the increase in heat. This is one of many examples of Prison‘s incredibly atmospheric horror, which owes a sincere debt to the expert lighting and cinematography of Empire favorite Mac Ahlberg.

The film also hits every prison cliché imaginable, except for the old favorite laundry scene. The clichés works here though, as horror does well when using the familiar and then ripping the rug out from under you when you feel safe, throwing conventions on their head. While you’ve seen hundreds of solitary confinement scenes, I guarantee you haven’t seen one like the one in Prison. You’ve also seen more than your share of scenes in a warden’s office, but there’s no way you’ve seen a dude strapped to a chair by barbed wire exploding up through the warden’s floor! See what I mean? Prison is awesome.

Prison utilizes the setting and the conventions of the genre effectively and creates an excellent horror film filled with atmosphere and genuine creepy thrills. There’s also a bunch of high-quality FX from Beuchler and crew sure to please even the most jaded fan of 80s horror. I cannot lie though, the film is not flawless. It has a lot of problems telling its story, specifically filling out the backstory of what happened with the electrocuted prisoner. There are attempts to do this, but most of the time they direct the focus away from the thrills and the prisoners and aren’t nearly interesting enough to hold the viewer’s attention. They also drop the ball on a couple of major threads towards the end and the story really devolves into a jumbled mess. Amidst this story jumble though, there are lots of fun, fantastic scenes of horror and at the end of the day that’s what matters most in a horror flick.

Prison could have been an absolute home run with a few script tweaks, but as it stands, it’s one of the best prison horror films I’ve seen. Viggo Mortensen is great in the lead prisoner role, and Lane Smith owns the tortured warden role with ease. If you enjoy prison films, but you wish they had more scares and gore, then look no further than Renny Harlin’s Prison!

Next week, it’s Klaus Kinski in 1986’s Crawlspace!