(Remember, clicking the highlighted links brings you to other reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)
This late 80s film is one of Empire Pictures’ better titles and the first foray into horror for prolific director Renny Harlin, who would make one of the best Elm St. sequels The Dream Master later that year.
Prison tells the story of the re-opening of the abandoned Creedmore Prison due to the lack of state funds to build a new incarceration facility. Warden Sharpe (Lane Smith) is set to take back control of his former prison with a slew of new inmates, including quiet loner Burke (Viggo Mortensen). No sooner is the prison inhabited, then strange things start to occur and inmates and officers alike start to die horrible deaths. Is someone in the prison a psychotic murderer…more-so than usual…or is there some truth to the growing rumor that an inmate executed over three decades earlier, Charlie Forsythe (also Mortensen), is haunting the prison and back to avenge his wrongful death.
Prison is a solid horror as directed by Harlin from a script by Irwin Yablans and C. Courtney Joyner. It is also a routine one and kinda forgettable despite some nice atmosphere and very effective moments. Maybe because it’s basically just a haunted house movie reset in a prison and with some very gory deaths added, that it doesn’t really stick with you after it’s over. Harlin does a good job. There is tension and some nice horror set-pieces, as well as, a nice purveying feeling of dread. As usual with his films, it looks good production design-wise and Mac Ahlberg’s cinematography is crisp. The FX work is very effective and there are some unsettling and imaginatively gory deaths. The drawback is that basically when you strip away the setting, it is indeed your basic haunted house flick with a vengeful spirit back to reveal truths and punish those responsible for their unwarranted death. We have seen it before and the prison setting and competent direction doesn’t hide it. I enjoyed it when I saw it in a theater back in 1988, but the film never stuck with me and it was only recently, that I felt the urge to check it out again. It had the same effect. It was solid horror entertainment while it was on, but it doesn’t last after the film ends.
The cast is efficient and effective. Mortensen does the quiet loner thing very well, as does Smith make a serviceable bad guy with something to hide. Chelsea Field is a state official trying to fight corruption and over-crowding within the prison system and makes a solid heroine. She and Mortensen work well together when she tries to investigate the mysterious deaths. Lincoln Kilpatrick is solid as Creesus, an inmate who was imprisoned there before and knows far more about Forsythe’s execution than he lets on. We also get Tom “Tiny” Lister as an inmate and fan favorite Kane Hodder as Forsythe’s manifested spirit under full make-up. It was Hodder’s work with make-up man John Carl Buechler on this flick, that got him the role of Camp Crystal Lake’s most famous resident when Buechler directed Friday The 13th Part VII.
All in all, this is an effective and entertaining horror. It’s well made, but due to the overall familiarity, it’s not a film that really sticks with you. It’s a sad case of a good flick that just lacks the key elements to really make it memorable. It’s too routine and too familiar to warrant much thought after it’s done. Definitely worth a watch if you haven’t seen it, but nothing you haven’t seen before despite a good effort by all involved.
3 electric chairs.