Directed by Renny Harlin
Distributed by The Scream Factory
The first time I ever encountered Renny Harlin's Prison was back when I was a kid; my best friend's dad had someone he'd always bring home weird horror movies from (it's how I discovered movies like Sleepaway Campand From Beyond), and one weekend he popped Prison into the VCR. And while the 20 minutes we did see scared my bestie far more than it did me, her dad decided he'd be finishing up the film without us anyway so sadly, I had to wait all these years to finally see Prison in its entirety since the film never got a proper home release and it pretty much slipped off my radar throughout the years.
Thankfully the good people of Scream Factory have stepped up in bringing many different cult classics to hi-def, and their treatment of Prison, which arrived this week in the form of a special edition Blu-ray, is nothing short of superb. Oh and- SO WORTH THE WAIT!
As someone who grew up on a steady stream of Harlin movies (even dragging my mom to the drive-in three times to see A Nightmare on Elm Street 4), Prison is absolutely what you'd hope for in an early project from the Finnish director who has since gone on to helm projects like Cliffhanger, Die Hard 2 (which gets far too much flack in my opinion- naked Bill Sadler FTW), Deep Blue Sea and the highly underrated The Long Kiss Goodnight.
With Prison Harlin presents us with a rather simple and straightforward "haunted house" story set inside the walls of a decrepit prison with the results being a movie that's creepy, intense, and entertaining as hell and an all-around incredible first-time effort for Harlin.
The usual horror elements are at play in Prison- unexplainable killings, weird noises, general unpredictability, nightmarish flashbacks of past crimes and a steady climb towards a freakishly violent conclusion, but instead of playing out as something we've seen a million times before, Harlin adds a heightened sense of peril by putting his ghosts and its intended victims square in the middle of dilapidated prison that has been closed since a mysterious prisoner named Charlie Forsythe was put to death by electrocution for a crime he didn't commit. Framed by prison guard Eaton Sharpe (Lane Smith), ol' Charlie is looking for a little revenge once Sharpe takes over as the new warden; unfortunately for the new warden, he unknowingly unleashes evil inside after having some of his prisoners dig out the abandoned execution chamber which had been walled over since Charlie's death.
And as you can guess, that's when things in Prison get really good; to say much more would ruin it for the uninitiated out there (and trust me, classic horror fans should seek out this movie immediately- my childhood feels a little empty now in retrospect that I missed out on enjoying this movie throughout the years), but Harlin really knocks it out of the park on so many levels, making it hard to imagine just why this movie never got a proper release back in the late '80s.
As far as ensembles go, Prison is a veritable who's who of modern cinema, including Viggo Mortensen (Lord of the Rings trilogy) as the film's hero, Burke; the aforementioned Smith, who's known best from the original Red Dawn and (one of my favorite guilty pleasures) Son-in-Law; Tiny Lister (Friday, No Holds Barred); Hal Landon, Jr. (Ted's Dad in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure); character actor Tom Everett (XXX, Air Force One) and Chelsea Field (Masters of the Universe). And as if that's not impressive enough, first-time director Harlin also managed a cast of almost 100 extras on top of that, which included many real-life prisoners 'on loan' from a local prison, who were brought in to help flesh out certain scenes. Try to imagine any director these days taking that kind of chance with his cast.
Prisonalso greatly benefits from Harlin's signature directional style, his use of harsh, focused light and dark, dense shadows heightening the film's atmosphere effectively. There's also a bit of Harlin's signature slickness in Prison, with the director focusing on the action and sight gags with a fluidity that's unprecedented (and an approach Harlin often never gets much credit for bringing into the horror genre in the late 80's) for a movie this violent and often grisly.
The production design in Prison is also amazing, making it hard to believe this was a low-budget affair by any means. Richard Band's memorable score also heightens the tone and atmosphere of Prison blissfully, with his booming melodies often sonically capturing the growing frenzy perfectly between the prisoners, the warden and the evil lurking within the prison's walls. It's a score I'd love to see get its own release one day in fact.
In terms of presentation quality, Scream Factory once again goes the extra mile for Prison with the film looking surprisingly good considering it's been a 'lost' movie for some time now. The audio mix was somewhat uneven, with some of the dialogue seemingly dropping off here and there throughout many of the quieter scenes. Overall, neither is enough to consider this a bad presentation at all, most likely any issues stemming from the fact that Prison is now almost 25 years old.
Scream Factory's Prison Blu is loaded with goodies for longtime fans and those who are just discovering the flick for the first time; there's a really great audio commentary with Renny Harlin that is absolutely worth checking out after you've watched Prison the first time around. There's also a really entertaining "Making Of" featurette that gives a lot of insight into what went into the story and production of Prison from many of the people behind the project besides Harlin, including producer Irwin Yablans, writer C. Courtney Joyner, the iconic Charles Band and his brother, Richard, who composed the memorable score for the film. It's the perfect way to celebrate this often forgotten classic that definitely deserved better treatment in the late 80's.
As far as supernatural revenge tales go, Prison is one of the better efforts I've seen in some time and makes me sad that this is a movie that has gone this long without a proper release but also thankful that Scream Factory has now officially righted this wrong. With a confident first-time director at the helm, Prison is a gritty and gorgeous horror flick that's not only well acted and engaging but also delivers some shockingly fun and grisly deaths. For those horror fans out there who have never experienced Prison before, this Blu-ray release is undoubtedly the perfect introduction; for those of you who have patiently waited all these years to finally own Harlin's directorial debut, Scream Factory makes up for all that lost time with the perfect celebration of this often overlooked cult classic.
4 out of 5
4 out of 5