Packed off to a correction facility, or "attitude adjustment" camp, for troubled youths after the suicide of his brother sends him off the rails (at least, by the small town suburban standards of his concerned parents), handsome Jake Gyllenhaal look-alike David Forrester (Ricky Ullman) finds himself essentially a prisoner at a remote centre known as Driftwood ("where boys become men"), victim to a repressive regime presided over by alcoholic ex-marine, Captain Kennedy -- a man whose qualifications for the job of getting rebellious youths back on the straight and narrow are somewhat mitigated by his violent nature and slightly less than liberal redneck views. The sixteen-year old Forrester soon realises -- in a familiar movie tradition that embraces the likes of "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Cool Hand Luke" -- that this is a place for crushing the spirit in the name of enforcing conformity and, consequently, is staffed entirely by knuckle-browed loons and demented psychiatrists who often appear to have far greater attitude problems than the majority of the street kids who've unwittingly found themselves lost in its bizarre institutional Hell. Kennedy is corrupt and up to his teeth in dodgy land deals, all the while hiding the true nature of his sadistic regime from the unsuspecting, predominately middle-class parents of his beat-upon charges. The other kids at the facility are your usual collection of teen-movie standbys: the hard-nut gang member just needing to be listened to and appreciated, the clueless stoner kid who provides the comedy relief with his slacker drollery, the sensitive gay kid who gets bullied for not fitting in, and the Jack Nicholson/Paul Newman protagonist (Forrester), who retains his identity and stands up for the underdog in the midst of repressive authoritarian rule and cliquey peer pressure from his fellow inmates.
So far so normal. This youth/prison movie scenario was the original pitch from director and co-writer Tim Sullivan, whose previous horror-comedy "2001 Maniacs" -- a homage to '60s exploitation splatter king Herschell Gordon Lewis -- might not lead one to expect such a standard dramatic treatment of what is essentially rather a downbeat subject matter. The film was inspired by the (unbelievable) fact that these kinds of correctional facilities do apparently exist in the U.S., many of them springing up in the wake of the Columbine tragedy, often independently run by companies with little experience or qualifications in looking after young people. These places are often advertised on cable TV with Info-mercials, and parents can quite legally pack their pot-smoking little darlings off for a summer (or longer) of character reforming tough love!
But the film's producers, Dark Horse Indie (an off-shot of the uber-hip Dark Horse Comics) understandably wanted something that deferred to Sullivan's usual Horror audience at least a little; and so the obvious way to go is the "supernatural thriller" sub genre. The prison setting surely lends itself to a ghost story: with its creepy corridors and the secluded grounds of the ominous facility; not to mention the unpleasant things that may have gone on there in the past. It mightn't seem too difficult an assignment, then, to rewrite the script so that it included a ghost of a former inmate haunting the long dark corridors. Sullivan, understandably wanting to preserve as much as the atmosphere of his original drama as possible, consequently claims to be more inspired by the subtitles of Val Lewton's school of horror rather than that of Herschell Gordon Lewis.
Maybe because of his affinity with his dead rock star brother (whose former band is called 27: a reference to the fact than many Rock icons - Joplin, Hendrix, Cobain, etc. -- died at exactly that age) Forrester becomes haunted by visions of a horrifically maimed adolescent boy called Jonathan, who, he discovers, disappeared on the site of Driftwood some years previously in mysterious circumstances. Needless to say, the reasons and explanations given by Kennedy and his henchman Yates (himself a former inmate of limited intelligence, who abuses his new position of authority over the other kids) turn out to be some way away from the truth.
It will be noted that this scenario bears some resemblance to "The Devil's Backbone"; it also may not be entirely coincidental that one of the main music cues strongly resembles Ofelia's Theme from "Pan's Labyrinth". The makers of the film would no doubt love to have their film thought of in the same category, but it unfortunately doesn't come anywhere near the mark, possessing none of the tender poetic artfulness of Guillermo del Toro's twin masterpieces. The truth is that the supernatural element does seem rather obviously tacked on, and the general tone of the movie, established early on, is not at all suitable for sustaining a sense of supernatural unease or wonder. Towering over everything is the larger-than-life presence of former WCW and WWF champion wrestler Diamond Dallas Page, whose turn as Captain Kennedy is as big as the guy himself. Entertaining though he is, he's essentially a caricature, as is the prim, homophobic psychiatrist Quails, brilliantly played by John Walcutt, but still as another larger-than-life comic book performance. The film is dealing in stereotypes and cardboard cut-out characters, and the supernatural element doesn't add up to much in the final analysis. More compelling, in fact, is the story of the homosexual misfit Noah (Jeremy Lelliot) whose travails are ultimately far more compelling than the increasingly stilted ghost story which frustratingly reduces Noah's story to a subplot, despite it carrying more emotional weight than any other episode of the film. By the time the confusing climax rolls around, it has long been overshadowed by a cast of square-jawed teen juveniles and a subplot involving Kennedy's beautiful daughter, played by Jessica Alba clone, Baelyn Neff: at least the script goes in some strange and unconventional directions with the romance between she and Forrester -- and Kennedy's strange part in it -- turning a rather annoying and predictable relationship on its head by the end of the movie.
For all these very real doubts, the film is very well made and nicely shot (Sullivan has been blessed here with the services of William Friedkin's main editior Bud S. Smith, who takes up the role of assistant director), and there is a pleasing "filmic" quality to the photography -- a welcome respite in these days of cheap and cheerful digi-camcorder shot flicks. The location -- a real abandoned maximum security prison, which, since the film was shot, has reopened for business! -- is a very creepy and forbidding presence in the film: very claustrophobic and grim. As is usually the case, many of the cast and Sullivan himself, insist the site was really haunted. This film makes a pleasant enough distraction on a rainy afternoon, but I can't claim much else for it. It plays too much like an early-eighties formulaic teen drama to ever really engage like it should.
The Anchor Bay disc comes with a fairly hefty selection of extras: a 28 minute making-of featurette, several shorter featurettes, extended scenes, bloopers, trailers and "weblogs" (behind the scenes footage intercut with short interview sound-bites); and there is also an audition reel. The press release claims there are two commentaries on the disc: one with Tim Sullivan and his co-writer Chris Kobin, and another with the two writers and Diamond Dallas Page. I could not find any mention of these on the disc menus themselves and neither could I access any such commentaries from anywhere else on the disc. Strangely, the extended and deleted scenes do feature commentary extracts. This may just be a problem with my screener copy though, it's possible the retail version will have these extras included.