One of the most fascinating phenomena in the world of narrative filmmaking is how a particular concept will inspire a run of films based around it. This usually happens in mainstream Hollywood: a memorable example was the run of “body switch” comedies in the late 1980’s — Vice Versa, Like Father Like Son, 18 Again, etc. However, this phenomenon can also carry into more specialized-appeal genres like horror. A particularly specific example of this phenomenon was the run of supernatural prison movies that happened in the late 1980’s: The Chair, Slaughterhouse Rock, etc.
The best of that bunch was a little film called Prison. Its plot fuses the conventions of the prison movie with the conventions of the haunted house movie. The story begins with a long-closed prison being reopened due to state budget cuts, with the actual prisoners being used to do the renovation and cleanup. Warden Sharpe (Lane Smith) supervises the process but it brings back bad memories of a tragedy involving an electric chair execution.
In short order, the warden has to contend with more than bad memories. Both prisoners and guards begin to die strange deaths. Amidst the chaos, Sharpe takes notice of a young con named Burke (Viggo Mortensen), a mysterious but heroic type who tries to protect his fellow prisoners from the mountain chaos going on behind bars. Sharpe goes over the edge as the bodies pileup, taking it out on the prisoners and causing unrest to build. It’s inevitable that he and Burke will clash — and that the supernatural forces directing the murders will show their hand during the finale.
Prison stands apart from the rest of the prison/horror crossovers because it has a higher level of ambition. Renny Harlin made his American directing debut with this film and works hard to give it professional visual gloss. Shooting it in a real Wyoming prison amps up the atmosphere, as does the skillful, stylishly lit cinematography by horror vet Mac Ahlberg.
On the story level, Prison does have a few problems. It’s a little longer than it should be at 102 minutes and the script tries to make what is ultimately a very simple mystery seem more complex than it actually is. It also seems a little odd that the film’s supernatural force seems to strike out at prisoners more than it does the Warden and his men.
Despite these storytelling issues, Prison works as a fusion of action and horror. Harlin choreographs the various setpieces well — a scene where a luckless soul is attacked by barbed wire is particularly effective — and he also casts his film well. Mortensen shows good leading man chops well before Hollywood took notice of him and the supporting cast is filled with familiar faces like Arlen Dean Snyder, Tiny Lister and Lincoln Kilpatrick (very good as an aging con who knows the warden’s secret).
In short, if you’re serious enough about your vintage horror to check out the brief “horror in prison” trend then Prison is your best choice.