1987. Directed by Renny Harlin.
Harlin's second feature film, Prison is an extremely underrated ghost story that uses a slow burn ensemble approach to a tried and true revenge story and then deftly uses its significant narrative power to present a rather potent commentary on American prison culture.
20 years in the past, a prison guard was complicit in the execution of an innocent man. In the present, the crumbling prison is reopened due to overpopulation problems and the guard is now the warden. When the prisoners break open the old execution chamber, the tortured spirit of the executed man escapes and begins a campaign of vendetta against the living, locking the prisoners and guards into a life or death struggle, where one inmate holds the key to salvation.
Viggo Mortensen's first leading performance is phenomenal. His true to form embodiment of the good guy prisoner is perfectly layered and masterfully bold. Mortensen's Burke is the quintessential "just wanna do my time" loner whose transformation into hero breeds an undeniable sense of loyalty with the viewer due to Mortensen's soft spoken approach to the material. He is supported by Lane Smith, Chelsea Fields, the legend Kane Hodder, Arlen Dean Snyder, Tiny Lister, Ivan Kane, and Lincoln Kilpatrick. The strength of this film is in the group dynamics. It begins as a seen it before prison epic and quietly becomes a relevant statement on the inescapable criminal justice system. If there is one regret, its that the us against them, prisoner versus guard concept is woefully interrupted by the supernatural aspects.
Harlin used real inmates as extras, including a stuntman SAG member who was serving time for manslaughter. The guards on the walls were actual prison guards with live ammunition. Filmed at the Wyoming Territorial Prison in Rawlins, Wyoming, many of the sets feature additions that were hand built, including the spooky electric chair and the mechanical gate segment of the wall which plays a crucial part in the finale.
Mac Ahlberg's cinematography has a mildewed quality that is hard to forget. Everything about Prison is a motor oil puddle, complete with flares of incandescent colors that offset the soggy cardboard palette of the jail. Michael Deak's special effects, particularly a sequence involving sentient barbwire, are unforgiving, with animated objects doing the bulk of the dirty deeds. The ghost itself is thankfully absent for most of the film, its presence simulated by dangerous lighting effects and repressive heat. Along with the visual delights, William Butler's makeup work not only compliments the gore, but also presents the prisoners as beaten and desperate, harmonizing with Prison's vengeful undercurrent.
Rescued from VHS exile by Shout Factory, Prison is now available on a solid blu ray transfer. Featuring an amazing ensemble, memorable kill scenes, and a hyper stylized critique of the penal system, this is a woefully forgotten film that needs attention. While it approaches the subject matter via blatant cliches, Prison ultimately succeeds due to the strong performances of its stellar cast, taking what could easily be a rehashed prison shocker and delivering a thoughtful, self contained horror film that is an excellent addition to any Halloween viewing list.