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 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 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!