Better Than The Real Thing: PRISON (1988) Review


It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything on here (time has not been on my hands lately), but I’m making sure to at least cram as many horror movie reviews as possible into the month of October. I’m trying to pick movies that seem like a good choice to watch on or around Halloween (whether they’re any good or not will be decided). So how about a classic eighties haunted house movie? Well, it’s not necessarily a classic, and it’s not even necessarily a haunted house movie! But that doesn’t make this specific haunted location any less terrifying.

PRISON (1988) Review 

In 1964, inmate Charles Forsythe was executed via the electric chair, and soon after, Creedmore Prison was shut down. Now, more than twenty years later, the penitentiary is being reopened under the direction of Warden Eaton Sharpe (Lane Smith), a former guard at Creedmore. However, Sharpe soon finds that he might be in over his head when a wall being broken down sparks bizarre supernatural occurrences often lead to gruesome death. Nice-guy prisoner Burke (Viggo Mortensen) wants to find out why these things are happening as well as Sharpe’s secret connection to Forsythe’s death. Will anyone right the wrongs of the past before hard time turns deadly for everyone in the prison?

There’s a good chance you haven’t heard of Prison (then again, you’re on a website called Obscure Cinema 101, so there’s also a good chance you have), and with some of the people involved in this movie, you might be even more surprised that you haven’t heard of it. This isn’t a star-studded movie by any means, but you’ve got Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger) in the director’s chair and this is also very notable for being Viggo Mortensen’s (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, A History of Violence, and Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, my favorite in the series) first starring role. Usually early efforts from talented filmmakers are either very impressive or a big letdown, and I’m happy to report that Prison is, without a doubt, very impressive.

Renny Harlin isn’t a director often credited for subtlety, but there are some scenes in Prison that prove that this guy is good at more than just filming action scenes. Despite really being a horror-action movie, the cinematography, lighting, and locations give Prison a vibrant neo-Gothic look (the film was shot in an actual abandoned prison, so naturally it’s going to be creepy) along with an air of professionalism that was found in a lot of the bigger-budgeted Empire Pictures movies. This is also due to Richard Band’s great (as always) score which always seemed to fit whatever was going on onscreen, be it intense action or subtle creepiness. It also employs one of those small characteristics of eighties horror movies that I love to death, which is a heavy use of blue lighting in gloomy locations (try to tell me you don’t love that too and I’ll call you a dirty liar) and a lot of shots of people standing in front of shafts of light (which is equally awesome).

But that isn’t to say this movie isn’t over-the-top (this is a horror-action movie made by Renny Harlin, after all). It’s still got all the gore, explosions, stunts, and inventive deaths you’d expect from a 1988 haunted prison movie, and all without losing style. The screenwriters really got creative with some of the kills, like a prisoner being cooked alive in “the hole,” a pipe impalement, and in the film’s most infamous scene, a prison guard being constricted by barbed wire, and they go out of their way to not skimp on the red stuff in these scenes. The effects were done by John Carl Buechler, who had to have been one of the best effects guys in the horror industry around this time (there’s famous story of how Buechler was impressed by stuntman Kane Hodder’s willingness to put worms in his mouth for a shot on the set, which caused Buechler to cast him as Jason in Friday the 13th Part VII). I’d imagine one of the hardest aspects of making a movie set in prison is developing likable characters, and Prison does this just fine. Some of them are a little goofy, like a stereotypical Italian named Lasagna and a practitioner of voodoo, but as a whole a lot of the inmates are pleasant enough people, which leads to some suspense when the shit really hits the fan and they’re all in danger.

A big complaint people have with the haunted house subgenre is is the nagging question of, “Why don’t these people just move out?” Well, in Prison, they can’t! That’s just one small plot detail that makes Prison so enjoyable and surprisingly smart (well...that may be pushing it). Still, I really can’t find anything wrong with this movie. There’s some overacting in places and occasionally there will be a terribly dated hairstyle in the background (the background extras were real prisoners), but none of this really takes you out of the movie. The switch from subtle and creepy scares in the beginning to the whiz-bang explosion-filled climax is handled well, and even the characters get a good amount of screentime so we feel sympathy for them as they try to stay alive. Scream Factory gave this a long-overdue Blu-Ray/DVD release a few months back, and they’ve certainly made up for lost time. The picture is great (I actually noticed a neat “bubbling skin” effect I hadn’t been able to see in the VHS version) and the extras, while seemingly slim, cover nearly everything you’d ever want to know about the making of this underrated classic. Besides, it’s Aragorn’s first starring role. That should warrant a viewing.

The Verdict: Basically, Prison just succeeds in everything it does. It’s eerie, gothic, gory, intriguing, and by the end, very exhilarating. Talk about a real roller coaster of a movie, but without the nausea (unless barbed wire constrictions make your stomach turn).

Rating: 9/10


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