Prison (Scream Factory Blu-ray)
Directors - Renny Harlin
Cast - Viggo Mortensen, Chelsea Field
Country of Origin - USA
Discs - 2
Distributor - Shout Factory
Reviewer - Bobby Morgan
Date - 02/24/13
The Film: 4/5
More than three decades after inmate Charlie Forsyth was put to death in the electric chair for a crime he always swore he didn't commit, Creedmore Prison has reopened for business. Presiding over the facilities is Warden Eaton Sharpe (Lane Smith), a former guard at Creedmore. Among the new inmates at the prison is Burke (Viggo Mortensen), a small time thief who bears a striking resemblance to Forsyth. Soon after prisoners start dying off in mysterious and gruesome ways. The brutal Sharpe believes the killer is hiding among the general population, but it eventually becomes clear that the cause of the deaths is supernatural. The wrongly convicted Forsyth has returned from beyond the grave to take his revenge on the man responsible for framing him for murder and sending him to the chair in the first place: Warden Sharpe. Only Burke and gutsy corrections worker Katherine Walker (Chelsea Field) can put an end to the madness before it claims the life of every man imprisoned at Creedmore.
For years Prison has been forcibly relegated to the home entertainment netherworld of video store shelf bottom racks and sporadic cable television airings following an unjustly brief theatrical engagement. Financier Empire Pictures, the company that birthed horror classics like Re-Animator and Puppet Master and later spawned Full Moon Pictures, had bottomed out by the time Prison was scheduled to hit movie screens across the country. The movie was pawned off on another indie genre specialist, New World Pictures, but that company was faring no better financially. New World had two horror features with some mainstream potential awaiting release but without the necessary funds needed to market and open them, so the decision was made to give Prison a perfunctory bow on a few screens while Dead Heat, the Joe Piscopo-Treat Williams horror-action-comedy went on to bomb spectacularly on 1000 theater screens from coast to coast. Both movies developed cult followings over time but only Dead Heat has seen a release on DVD before; complications over rights issues kept Prison in video limbo for years. Beyond its first VHS release more than twenty years ago the only way you could see the movie these days was in the form of a pristine remastered print of the movie that current rights holder MGM had been giving some airplay on their HD cable channel. Then again you always had the option of torrenting the sucker, but all of you out there reading this are just the happiest law-abiding citizens you could possibly be....right?
Prison was the first American film directed by a young Finnish filmmaker by the name of Renny Harlin. Nowadays that name has become synonymous with bombastic, empty-headed, but massively entertaining action flicks like Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger - not to mention the Shane Black-scripted The Long Kiss Goodnight - as well as the 1995 swashbuckling mega-flop Cutthroat Island. But early in his career Harlin had a knack for maximizing miniscule budgets to create taut, visually-inventive movies. In fact, though Prison was denied the wide theatrical release it deserved the movie still got Harlin noticed in the film industry and resulted in the director getting the assignment that would truly launch his career in Hollywood, 1988's A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. Prior to making Prison Harlin's only directing credit was the jingoistic actioner Born American (starring....GASP....Chuck Norris' son Mike), but the energy and flair he brings to this movie shows the confidence of a guy completely in command of his craft (say that three times fast). Filming in a real-life closed prison in Wyoming, Harlin exploits his authentic locations and wrings some genuinely terrifying atmosphere out of each dank cell and grimy corridor. The over-the-top death scenes are directed with gruesome panache, and it is easy to see from these gorily effective moments that Harlin was the ideal man to direct Freddy Krueger's most insanely enjoyable adventure yet.
The screenplay by C. Courtney Joyner, whose past credits include such minor video store classics as Class of 1999 and Doctor Mordrid as well as several entries in Full Moon's Trancers and Puppet Master franchises, is pure B-movie perfection - lean and mean with a host of memorable characters, some witty one-liners, and more than a few juicy opportunities for the film's effects crew, supervised by the great John Carl Buechler and including actor and make-up effects whiz William Butler, to show what they're really made of. The gore effects are plentiful but only as gruesome as they need to be with sequences showing guards getting sliced into bloody chunks of human stew beef beat by razor-sharp barbed wire, cooked alive inside solitary confinement cells that become giant ovens at Forsyth's command, and pulped into oblivion by hordes of supernaturally controlled rusted metal pipes. The late Mac Ahlberg, cinematographer of Re-Animator and From Beyond among many other genre classics, enhances the look of Prison with some terrific brooding camerawork that utilizes the perfect combination of light and dark to create a foreboding atmosphere. Phillip Duffin, the art director on my all-time favorite movie Evil Dead II who also served as the production designer on Phantasm II the same year he worked on Prison, turns the dilapidated penitentiary into a gothic house of horrors that remains infinitely more frightening to this day than all of the CGI beasties in La-La Land. All of this is complimented by a terrific and tense music score by Richard Band and Christopher Stone.
Practically a newcomer when he took the male lead in Prison, future superstar Viggo Mortensen shows us the talent and charisma he would bring to the parts that made him a household name later in life with an understated performance as the cool yet tough con Burke. Even at this early stage in his career Mortensen didn't have to do a lot to convince audiences he could play a stone cold badass like it was second nature to him, but he also creates a sympathetic character reminiscent of Paul Newman's Cool Hand Luke but never coming across as a second rate clone of that cinematic icon. Lane Smith, the late veteran character actor who specialized in playing decent or morally ambiguous men in movies like Blue Collar and Prince of the City, chews into his sadistic villain role with the unhinged relish of a mad dog enjoying a raw steak. He proves to be a master at playing a hateful son of a bitch that you can't wait for him to get his comeuppance. Chelsea Field of Dust Devil and The Last Boy Scout makes the most of her thinly-defined heroine role but she makes the character likeable and innately heroic. Character actors like Tom Everett, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Tommy "Tiny" Lister, and Larry Flash Jenkins add texture and realism playing the various inmates at Creedmore, most of whom come to horrifically untimely ends. Harlin even cast actual convicts as extras to make his on-screen prison all the more authentic. Finally we have horror icon Kane Hodder, who performed some damn fine stunt work but also gets some screen time as the resurrected Forsyth during the climax of Prison. He makes such a great monster in his brief appearance in Prison that it's no wonder he and Buechler would go on to work beautifully together the following year in Friday the 13 Part VII: The New Blood, Hodder's screen debut as the definitive Jason Voorhees. Renny Harlin's efficient B-horror monster mash may not have set the box office ablaze but it was sure packed with future genre movie heavy hitters.
Bolstered by a remastered print that first aired on the MGM HD channel a few years ago, Shout! Factory has done a superb job restoring Prison to its full visual splendor. The high-definition 1.78:1 widescreen transfer looks so good that those worn-out VHS copies will now seem like even more of a distant memory (damn shame though). The print quality is rich with inky black shadows and the prison setting looks appropriately more chilling and desolate than ever before. Print damage is practically nonexistent and the grain level is low enough without making the picture look degraded. Shout! has also provided English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround and English 2.0 stereo soundtracks. The 5.1 track wins out as it gives the intricate sound design and music score special attention and is certain to put your home theater speakers through their paces. Dialogue comes through very clear for the most part. The 2.0 soundtrack works well for standard television set-ups. English subtitles have also been included.
For its long-awaited debut on Blu-ray Shout! has pulled out all the stops to create some nifty and informative extra features that will please devoted fans of Prison.
Kicking things off just right is a newly-recorded audio commentary with director Harlin. He's not the most electrifying speaker in the business but Harlin's chat track is full of fascinating stories about making Prison, from the project's development to its aborted theatrical release and the development of the film's cult following, and the impact it had on his filmmaking career. While he could have used an extra voice or two in the commentary booth to help carry the track through the occasional dry spell Harlin proves to be an intelligent host and his insights into the making of Prison a quarter-century after its release should be considered invaluable to fans of the movie, myself included.
The best extra on this disc is "Hard Time: The Making of Prison" (38 minutes), a new retrospective documentary produced by Shout! in conjunction with their go-to guys for outstanding DVD/Blu-ray documentaries, Red Shirt Pictures. Along with Harlin and screenwriter Joyner the doc features fresh interviews with producer Irwin Yablans, executive producer Charles Band, production designer Phillip Duffin, effects supervisor John Carl Buechler, actor Tom Everett, and stunt coordinator Kane Hodder among others. "Hard Time" gives us a detailed overview of the origins of the movie and the physical production, from how it originated as an idea of Yablans to do "Halloween in a prison" to filming in an actual closed down Montana penitentiary and how Harlin's search for a "young James Dean" to play the role of Burke led to the casting of Viggo Mortensen. Interestingly enough, Thom Matthews of Return of the Living Dead and Friday the 13 Part VI: Jason Lives was the filmmakers' original choice to play the lead. Hodder has fond memories of working with Mortensen and how the actor wanted to do most of his own stunts, earning the horror icon's respects (and a free T-shirt!) as a result. You'll learn all those things and many more in this entertaining documentary, another winner from Shout! and Red Shirt.
U.S. and German theatrical trailers and three poster and still galleries round out the bonus features. The movie's original, darker first draft screenplay is included on the disc as a PDF file accessible only through a computer.
Shout! has also included a bonus DVD copy of the movie with an anamorphic widescreen transfer of the movie and all of the supplements available on the Blu-ray. As with the majority of the Scream Factory releases the combo pack comes with a reversible cover featuring all-new artwork on one side and the original movie poster art on the other.
Prison may have sunk like a stone on its theatrical release, but serving as the launching pad for so many prominent talents in the film industry as well as being a beloved cult favorite on video and cable has extended its shelf life long past the point of being totally forgotten. Shout! Factory has resurrected the movie from its own unjust execution and burial through their endlessly awesome Scream Factory imprint and given it a masterful Blu-ray treatment with excellent picture and sound quality and many worthwhile bonus features. Prison is one of the most underrated horror movies of the 1980's and this Scream Factory Blu-ray is one that true fans of the horror genre will not want to miss. Highly recommended.