1987 - 102m.
A penitentiary seems like this ideal location to set a horror movie but before "The Walking Dead" came along, it was a location that had rarely been used. The only horror in prison flicks that I can think of off the top of my head are The Chair, Furnace, Shadow: Dead Riot, and the movie featured in this review. Forgive me for saying it but this is downright criminal as prisons seem like they would be full of restless spirits and bad karma. Thankfully, producer Irwin Yablans (Halloween) clued into this and came up with the idea of a spirit that gets up to no good when an abandoned prison is recommissioned due to budgetary constraints. Yablans hired director Renny Harlin (in his American debut) to bring the story to life and the result is fast-moving and entertaining and Harlin does his best to take advantage of the location given the obvious low budget he had to work with. This is an Empire Picture after all and Charles Band was involved.
Viggo Mortensen (Lord of the Rings trilogy) stars as Burke, a level-headed but tough inmate who has been transferred to the reopened Wyoming State Penitentiary. The prison is run by a prick of a warden name Eaton Sharpe (Lane Smith), a former prison guard who watched an innocent man named Charles Forsythe fry in the the electric chair back when the prison was previously active. Shortly after the new inmates arrive, a pair of them are put in solitary confinement ("the hole") when they attempt to steal a bus. Meanwhile, Burke and another inmate are ordered to break down some walls to access the execution chamber but instead release the pissed-off ghost of Forsythe who is out for revenge. The spectre takes the form of a bright light and has the power to make things really hot and make inanimate objects (metal pipes, barb wire, etc.) move and turn into weapons. The result is a few creative deaths that get the prisoners riled up until they riot which gives Forsythe the opportunity to get even with the man who took his life.
I'm not one to yammer on about plot holes but this has a few inconsistencies that should be addressed. The fact that Forsythe, an innocent man who was unjustly put to death, chooses to kill people who were not involved with his death as part of his revenge plan doesn't make a whole lot of sense. It is not like these deaths were the result of unfortunate happenstance but these are cold, calculated deaths that border on torture in some cases. Once you watch a prick prison guard get wrapped up and constricted with barb wire in a lengthy sequence (courtesy of effects artist John Carl Buechler), it is hard to feel much empathy for Forsythe. Another inconsistency is the fact that Mortensen plays both Burke and Forsythe. This choice by the writer leads us to surmise that they are linked in some way but this is never explained and just left me scratching my head and rewatching scenes looking for a connection. Maybe I just missed something. I also felt that the sole female character played by Chelsea Field (Dust Devil) was totally unnecessary and should have been cut from the script.
Harlin is at his best during the larger scale action sequences such as the attempted bus escape and the riot during the finale. It is easy to see that this is one of his strengths and why he became an action director (Cliffhanger, Die Hard 2) after following this up with A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. A number of recognizable faces show up including Lincoln Kilpatrick (The Omega Man) and Tiny Lister (No Holds Barred). Sci-fi fans will recognize Lane Smith from the "V" TV series. Kane Hodder did the stunts and has a small role under heavy makeup as the undead Forsythe. Many of the prison extras were played by actual prison inmates which adds to the authenticity but seems a little dangerous. Overall, this is a fun horror flick that makes the most of its running time and has some cool moments with a solid cast. Hopefully someone will make a great prison horror movie one day but for now, Prison is the best we've got. (Josh Pasnak, 11/15/14)
Directed By: Renny Harlin.
Written By: C. Courtney Joyner.
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Lane Smith, Chelsea Field, Lincoln Kilpatrick.