Because of an over-abundance of prisoners the old, dilapidated Creedmore Prison is being reopened after over thirty years. Warden Eaton Sharpe is overseeing the renovations, which are being carried out by the first wave of prisoners, but he still has nightmares about the innocent man he sent to the electric chair in 1956 in this very same prison. Could things go horribly wrong in a way that results in a series of inventively gruesome deaths?
The opening nightmare sequence of this movie is pure dynamite. Using a subjective camera, we are put in the place of a condemned prisoner on the final walk to the electric chair. A scene rather like this one is present in the opening of Orson Welles's fascinating unproduced script for Heart of Darkness, from way back in 1939, the primary difference being that this one breaks the subjective camera to show us the prisoner in the chair rather than continuing to the disturbing fade to red of Welles's version.
We then get back to more familiar ground with scenes of the prison board approving the reopening of the facility, over the objections of the sole female board member, and the prisoners arriving and being browbeaten by the ball-busting Warden. Prisoners are introduced as stock stereotypes: the wise old black guy (a few years before Morgan Freeman made this role his stock in trade); the hairy white biker rapist and his pretty-boy cellmate; the huge black guy; the scared black guy; the weasly white guy; the voodoo-worshipping black guy; the doofus Italian guy; some guy; some other guy; and, of course, the clean-cut white hero.
Things are ominous right from the start, but it's not until the execution chamber is broken open that the vengeful spirit is unleashed and the killings start. And wow, these really are some gruesomely inventive killings.
I thought that Prison was a highly entertaining movie. It's filmed in an actual abandoned prison, and it makes great use of this location both for its atmosphere and for its set-pieces. The story races along at a terrific pace, and it's all quite stylishly photographed and the cast is good, in a broad horror-movie kind of way. Some elements of the movie reminded me of earlier movies (especially A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Keep) but it's not derivative and emerges as very much its own beast. There are some glaring script issues that I really wish had been addressed, but for me the movie's virtues outstripped its flaws.
In a number of ways Prison is very much a horror movie of its time. It has a vengeful supernatural killer from beyond the grave, it's built around the aforementioned series of murder set-pieces, and the whole movie is covered in layers of smoke and grime and lit by shafts of blue light and an abundance of special-effects electrical sparks. It was the first American film for Finnish director Renny Harlin, whose next movie was A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. Most ominously of all, it's produced by Charles Band's Empire Pictures, known for such schlockfests as Ghoulies and Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn.
On the other hand, Prison is the brainchild of producer Irwin Yablans, who first came to prominence when he proposed a story to fledgling filmmakers John Carpenter & Debra Hill called The Babysitter Murders, about a psycho who kills babysitters. Carpenter & Hill, of course, worked this up into Halloween. In this particular case, Yablans had an idea for a movie called Murder in the Big House, about a psycho killing people in prison. (Yablans does not have a knack for catchy titles.) Scriptwriter C. Courtney Joyner pointed out that there are always lots of killers with knives in prison and suggested that the story take a more supernatural spin. It's a shame that his good ideas ended there (Joyner's other uninspiring credits include the likes of Puppet Master 3 and Class of 1999) but Prison has enough style, action and (surprisingly enough) decent actors to make up for a rather shonky script.
After watching the movie, it occurred to me that the aforementioned opening scene is kind of a mirror image of the famous opening of Halloween, but instead of being from the point of view of a killer, we are shown the point of view of a victim. I had to wonder if this was deliberate on Yablans's part. I don't think it was intended to be Deep, but this scene made me really think about capital punishment (a subject I already have strong feelings about) and about the strange psychological space that prisoners find themselves in. If you were about to be executed for a crime you did not commit (or even one that you did), would you really placidly walk to the place of execution and just let it happen without a fight?
Our young hero, a car thief called Burke, is played by Viggo Mortensen in his first starring role (if you've heard of him, it's probably because he played the transvestite cannibal cowboy Tex in Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III a few years later). The primary villain, Warden Sharpe, is played by Lane Smith in what seemed to me to be a spot-on impersonation of Richard Nixon; I was pleased to discover that Smith actually did play Nixon a few years later. Lazy-eyed basketball player, professional wrestler and future President of Earth "Tiny" Lister turns in a pretty decent performance as one of the many under-written prisoner roles.
The worst thing about the movie is Chelsea Field's character, the prison board representative who is attempting to push through penal reform initiatives. Field is a pretty decent actress who was too often relegated to useless wife/girlfriend roles (the main exception being her doom-haunted performance in Richard Stanley's unique Dust Devil), and her character here serves the dual mechanical purposes of getting a woman into an otherwise all-male picture, and providing background exposition. She does her best with what she's given, but her scenes are lazily written (when she eats in the main mess hall, the prisoners barely glance in her direction) and every time the movie cuts away to her, the claustrophobia of the prison setting is dissipated. This is doubly annoying because all the elements are present between the prison walls to tell the full back-story, but instead we get tension-draining scenes of Field talking to old guys about plot points.
Another serious debit is the way that the movie hints that Burke is somehow connected to or reincarnated from the prisoner executed in the opening scene, and then completely drops it. I'm all for portentous hints and unexplained mysteries, but this just felt half-finished, as if a subplot was only half-removed from the movie.
But why quibble? Prison is an unusually well-made little horror movie. It's a shame that Harlin went sharply downhill from here (via that Elm Street sequel through an Andrew Dice Clay comedy and on to bone-headed blockbuster action flicks) and that Viggo Mortensen's career went nowhere.
I've listed this as a 1987 movie because that's what it says on the copy I watched, even though the rest of the internet says 1988. This means that by my counting, next year is the 25th anniversary. So can we please have a special edition with a Renny Harlin commentary, and a featurette where Kane Hodder yet again tells that great story about how he stuffed worms into his mouth for the final scene? (Note to Kane: I looked hard, and I didn't see any worms.)