“I got the habit of drinking Lysol in Gainesville in ’49. You ever been to Florida? I never saw the beach.” Cresus (Lincoln Kilpatrick) tells this to Burke (Viggo Mortensen) in a rather sad confession of a lifer. The two are recently assigned cellmates at a newly reopened penitentiary, which looks like a set from an AIP film starring Vincent Price in the 1960’s.
The American directing debut of Renny Harlin tells the story of a prison haunted by the ghost of an executed inmate. This ghost however is as much of the psychological as it is the external; the men in this prison are haunted by their own past, present, and the horrors of the future.
Produced by Charles Band for Empire Pictures in the late 1980’s, Prison is one of the studio’s smartest films. C. Courtney Joyner contributes a surprisingly deep screenplay for a supernatural horror film. The large ensemble cast, including Ivan Kane, Tom Everett, and Lane Smith, as the most twisted prison warden since Barbara Steele in Caged Heat, give the story a real grounding when the ghostly goings on kick in. Joyner knows the characters and their parallel plights are more important than the traditional horror elements, and the film is all the better for it. With such a large cast, I’m happy to say there isn’t a bad performance in the lot. Many of the background talent are actual inmates from local prisons, and they’re all game and up for the task at hand. Viggo Mortensen in his first starring role is as good as he would be later in much bigger films, as a bona fide star.
This formerly obscure film is given a pretty stellar presentation on Blu-ray here. There is some minor print damage in the form of a few vertical lines, and a nick here and there. Yet, given the vintage and budget of this film, it looks much better than I was anticipating. The quite lush cinematography by Mac Ahlberg gives the film much more than the budget should allow, and it’s given its due here. On the audio front, this is a pretty aggressive film, with a lot of noise, an effective score by Richard Band, and thankfully some nice use of dead silence to build suspense. Dialogue is clean and the sound effects are balanced nicely.
Sadly, there aren’t as many bonus features here as one may like, but they are all good. Things kick off with a commentary by Renny Harlen who is both talkative and informative. There is a bit of dead air, but not much. A thirty plus minute retrospective documentary is up next with interviews from Harlen, Joyner, and Irwin Yablans, who was a producer alongside Charles Band. Everyone has interesting things to say about making the film. Also included are two original theatrical trailers, one German and one American. A photo gallery and a PDF file of the first draft of the screenplay wrap things up. I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating that the folks at Shout! Factory should to be commended for their work in bringing these hidden films out into the light.
Prison isn’t just the title of the film, it’s a state of mind. Renny Harlin’s first feature in America is a horror film with a surprising amount of heart. When the chips are down, the “animals," as they are referred to by the hard as nails warden, refuse to become what is expected of them and help each out of the hell they have been cast into. Thanks to Shout! Factory, this jailbird is finally free of its cage, and it’s worth a look for those who enjoy a dark, gothic, character study with a bit of the supernatural.