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.