Prison (1988)

JUNE 10, 2010


Renny Harlin is awesome. Sure, his filmography may be spottier than a Dalmatian, but the guy is humble and honest, and was a terrific guest for a screening of his American debut (and easily his best horror film), Prison. This guy directed some of the biggest action movies of the 90s, so for him to come down and talk to fans about his 23 year old low budget horror film (while in post on a new feature) is very cool. You won’t see Roland Emmerich coming out for any Moon 44 screenings while he's trying to figure out how to destroy the world again, I can assure you of that.

Also, the movie’s actually quite good. It’s a shame that a bunch of legal nonsense has kept it from ever hitting DVD, as it’s ripe for rediscovery (and trying to convince people to check out a movie on VHS nowadays is like asking them to see an original horror movie in theaters instead of a piece of shit remake, apparently). I had seen it as a kid and wasn’t impressed (though I couldn’t remember why, or even anything about the film), but I think it’s the type of film that plays better when you have a wider knowledge of movie history.

Why? Because it’s actually a straight up prison movie for the most part. You get the escape attempts, the evil warden, the implied rape, the solitary confinement... all that good stuff, except there’s a ghost in addition to everything else. It’s like Shawshank Redemption by way of Stephen King (hey wait a minute...). The ghost plot isn’t entirely innovative - he’s yet another one that was wrongfully killed and is seeking revenge on the ones who did him in, but its tied quite successfully into the prison setting, as opposed to say, a movie like Furnace, which is set in a prison for the hell of it, its plot and execution could have occurred anywhere. So if you’ve seen a lot of prison movies (as I have, and HADN’T when I first saw the film), you’ll likely enjoy the twist on the formula.

Writer Courtney Joyner also took his time to develop a few of the characters, and wisely refrained from having the prisoners act antagonistic toward each other all the time. As much as I loved the show Prison Break, I never cared for how little the guys seemed to care about each other during the earlier seasons; even the heroic Michael would often leave his cohorts out to dry. But even the character played by the frequently villainous “Tiny” Lister is somewhat compassionate toward his cellmate and a few others (in fact he dies trying to prevent unnecessary bloodshed). There’s a sense of “we’re all in this together” instead of the usual “every man for himself” approach, and it pays off - you’ll wish a lot more of the characters survived than actually do.

Also, thanks to Last Boy Scout ("Fuck you, Sarah. You're a lying bitch, and if the cops weren't here I'd spit in your face" is possibly the most romantic thing I've ever heard in a movie) I had a crush on actress Chelsea Field and love seeing her in her prime. Scott Bakula sir, I envy you. She plays the prison’s... activities director, I guess? She is in charge of assigning them work and scheduling group sessions and that sort of stuff, so she's around mainly for the hell of it. And while she is saddled with some of the sillier moments in the movie (why exactly does the ghost want her to know about the truth behind his death when it will just put her in danger?), she makes for a good heroine - strong, smart, and thankfully not forced into any real romantic relationship with the hero, who happens to be one Viggo Mortensen, in his first starring role. Viggo fans will be delighted with a certain scene in the film in which a long-standing tradition begins: baring his ass for no reason. He’s playing a sort of generic “thief with a heart of gold” character, but he has a bit of a rebellious slant to him that keeps him interesting, always talking back to the guards but not enough for them to toss him in the hole or whatever. And no one tries to rape him, so you know the other characters respect him.

As this is a Charles Band production, Richard Band composed the score. And he apparently took all of the Re-Animator/Psycho comparisons to heart, as here he rips off John Williams instead of Bernard Herrmann. Seriously, if you don’t find his score similar to a very famous Williams cue (think water), you’re deaf. But otherwise, it’s a much more professional looking film than anything Charlie has been involved with in the past decade. It’s sort of a shame to think that he used to be involved with quality films when you consider the lazy bullshit he churns out nowadays.

Band, Harlin, and Joyner provided a nice Q&A after the film, in addition to a lengthy intro where they were joined by producer Irwin Yablans (who had to leave prior to the film’s conclusion, which bummed me out as he is the only surviving principle behind Halloween that I haven’t talked to - I will remedy this someday!). All four men shared some wonderful stories, including one about how the Finnish Harlin wasn’t familiar with saying “Cut!” and “Action!”, as they just say “Please” and “Thank you” over there. And Band related an anecdote about the time Viggo, not yet the A-lister he is now, asked him for a two hundred dollar advance on his salary so he could pay rent. It was easily one of the best Q&As I’ve seen in a while, and I really hope Harlin comes back again for one of his other films (Deep Blue Sea would be my choice).

What say you?

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  1. Aw man, I'd forgotten about this! I love all the barbed-wire stuff, & I'm totally with you on the Chelsea Field love. Surprised you haven't reviewed Richard Stanley's Dust Devil!

  2. Just watched this film for the first time in many years and thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Bit of an odd thing I noticed at he start of the film. ..
    I am an obsessive fan of John Carpenter's The Fog and noticedh thar when Chelsea Field is driving up to the gates of the prison you hear a metallic creaking/sqeuaking noise of something hanging loose.
    The same sound effect is used in The Fog just after the clock has struck midnight and the town 'falls apart' and there's a janitor cleaning up a store. He approaches the refrigerator and there's a wooden sign hanging and swaying about.
    Yes, I have seen that film far too many times!

    Not really relevant in any way but just thought I'd share! :)

    grat blog by the way

  3. Shout! Factory just announced that they will be putting this out on DVD & Blu-ray next year!


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