Renny Harlin’s gotten a bit of a raw deal. Sure, he’s never had his Citizen Kane moment, but, as far as guilty pleasure action spectacles go, Harlin’s delivered in spades, with everything from Die Hard 2: Die Harder to Cliffhanger to Deep Blue Sea. Hell, I’ll even add Mindhunters – the criminally underrated 2004 serial killer thriller – to that list. Sure, his brief marriage to uber-hottie, Geena Davis, resulted in cinematic misfires like Cutthroat Island and The Long Kiss Goodnight, but everyone has a ball roll into the gutter once-in-awhile, right? Sadly, since that time, Harlin’s star has fallen considerably, with the very talented director currently plying his trade on television and direct-to-video flicks. I can’t fathom how things went so horribly wrong for Harlin, but, thanks to Scream Factory, we can all finally see how the most successful Finnish director in Hollywood got his start with the little seen gem, Prison!
Prison opens with a POV shot of a dead man walking, as Charles Forsyth is being escorted to the electric chair by prison guard, Eaton Sharpe (Lane Smith). Forsyth is executed, but, as Sharpe removes a crucifix necklace from the crispy con’s corpse, Forsyth springs back to life, his hands wrapped around the guard’s throat! As Sharpe is on the verge of having the life choked out of him, a phone rings, and we cut to the guard in his bed; noticeably older, soaked in sweat, with his sheets wrapped around his neck. Sharpe answers the phone, and is informed that, due to overcrowding, Creedmore Prison – the place where Sharpe watched Charles Forsyth be put to death - will be re-opening after thirty years, and that, due to his familiarity with the place, he has been chosen as the new warden. Sharpe graciously accepts the honor, but, as he puts down the phone, his expression turns dour and his eyes drift to a glimmering item on his bedside table; Forsyth’s crucifix.
We are then transported to the dilapidated Creedmore Prison, its impenetrable stone walls overgrown with moss and ivy, its dark cellblocks filled with debris and the stink of neglect. As Sharpe oversees the clean-up, he’s visited by Katherine Walker (Chelsea Field), a social worker for the Department of Corrections who is sent to make sure that the prison is not only made habitable, but that Sharpe is up to the task of serving as its warden. The first busload of transferred prisoners arrive, but it’s not without incident, as Rabbitt (Tom Everett) commandeers the bus whilst chained to the unfortunate Hershey (Larry Jenkins), and attempts to escape, only to find his path blocked by Warden Sharpe. It is here that the warden shows his zero-tolerance policy, and has Rabbitt and Hershey sent to solitary confinement. Meanwhile, another prisoner, Burke (Viggo Mortenson), gets Sharpe’s attention for an entirely different reason.
While the rest of the prisoners are put to work cleaning up the cellblocks, Burke and the shamanistic Sandor (André De Shields) are given the special task of breaking down a wall in the prison’s basement that’s blocking access to the old execution chamber. As Burke and Sandor chip away at the concrete and stone, something stirs in the bowels of the prison, and, once the inmates break through the barrier, they’re knocked back by a mysterious force of energy that escapes into the prison. Sharpe later visits the execution chamber, and places Forsyth’s crucifix on the chair in which he died, apparently as some sort of peace offering. However, not long after, another bizarre accident claims a life in solitary confinement, as the metal cells in which Hershey and Rabbitt are housed are superheated by yet another electrical incident. Burke manages to save Rabbitt, but it’s too late for Hershey as he’s literally cooked alive!
As more lives are lost to freak incidents, it becomes clear to Sharpe that his offering to Forsyth was not enough to satiate the vengeful spirit as the truth behind Forsyth’s execution is revealed.
Prison received a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theatrical release back in 1988 before it was unceremoniously dumped onto VHS, but, since that time, the film has gone virtually unseen by horror fans, myself included! I’ve long heard about this lost gem, but only now do I finally understand why the film has such a cult following as it’s an extraordinarily entertaining and atmospheric supernatural horror flick that boasts super-inventive and gory kills, an engrossing (if not predictable) plot, and some really fine work by Smith and an impossibly young Mortenson. Harlin absolutely nails it in his first shot at a “Hollywood” flick, and his direction, along with the gorgeous cinematography of Mac Ahlberg (Re-Animator), makes this low-budget shocker one of the most visually scrumptious offerings of the 80s. It’s just a total blast from start to finish, which makes its nearly two decades in motion picture purgatory all the more perplexing.
Scream Factory brings Prison to Blu-ray in a very nice 1.78:1 1080p transfer that’s really only marred by the aesthetic choices of the period. The film has a somewhat gauzy, soft-focus look that, at times, muddies details, but, overall, it’s a very attractive transfer, with solid blacks, fairly vibrant colors, and a warm, cinematic quality that’s enhanced by a consistent sheen of fine grain. As with the majority of Scream Factory’s releases, the film features two options for audio; a 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track, as well as a 2.0 DTS HD track. As always, I preferred the 2.0 track as it’s more in keeping with the film’s vintage and is closest to the way the film was meant to be heard. While the 5.1 track does offer some nifty directional cues, I much prefer the straight 2.0 mix’s no frills approach, which boasts crisper dialogue and a less processed sound overall.
Prison is one of Scream Factory’s Collector’s Edition titles, and, one would expect from the designation, comes loaded with a nice selection of brand new extras created exclusively for this release. First up, we get a fantastic and very honest commentary track with director, Harlin, in which he both critiques his work as well as offers up plentiful tales about the arduous process of making the film. It’s a very conversational and enjoyable track, and it’s obvious that Harlin is more than happy to revisit this early “B-movie” offering; something many directors of his stature would likely avoid!
The featurette, Hard Time: The Making of Prison (HD), offers interviews and anecdotes from all of the major players (save for Mortenson), including Harlin, producers Charles Band and the always modest Irwin Yablans (who will have you know that he came up with the film’s story and was not only an integral part of the screenwriting process, but an onset peacemaker and problem solver!), composer, Richard Band, as well as actor, Tom Everett, and an assortment of production personnel. It’s a fairly lengthy and comprehensive mini-documentary of sorts, and makes a great companion piece to Harlin’s commentary track.
Rounding out the extras are both the U.S. and German theatrical trailers (HD), and a poster and stills gallery (HD).
As with all of Scream Factory’s Collector’s Editions, this one features a reversible cover featuring a very nice painted cover by Jeff Zornow on the front, as well as the film’s original poster art on the reverse side. The set also includes a copy of the film and its extras on standard definition DVD.