Sunday, October 13, 2013

Prison (1988)

More often than not, then as now, horror films struggle to bring something new to the screen. Whether that means introducing new character types, moral trappings, religious tropes, zany belligerence, or primary settings, the genre has always struggled with a tendency to err towards the side of derivative near plagiarism rather than shuffling forward to new ground. The bottom line for any studio releasing films, again then as now, was a return on investment... especially in the 80's when slasher horror was as common as quirky John Hughes-esque comedy. Cheap to make and easy to release so long as it followed in the vein of already existing archetypes like Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, or Halloween. Perhaps that's why Renny Harlin's debut American picture, Prison, fared so badly upon its initial release.

Set in the abandoned Rawlins, Wyoming Old State Prison (here called Creedmore), the film follows several busloads of inmates transferred out of operational facilities and brought to the middle of nowhere to get the grounds and interior back into shape in order to add another asylum for the federal corrections institution. The warden Eaton Sharpe, played by the excellent Lane Smith, had previously served as Captain of the Guard at Creedmore prior to its closing in the 60's. His sleep is haunted by dreams of the last execution performed there, in which he oversaw a man named Forsythe's electrocution, recalled in gory detail during a dream.

One of the new batch of prisoners is Burke, played by Viggo Mortenson in his first starring role (discounting his small part in Witness, and before the "Saw Was Family" in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre III), who has a striking resemblance to the executed Forsythe of Warden Sharpe's dream. Burke is partnered with another inmate and tasked with striking down the false wall blocking the execution chamber, in an attempt for the warden to grasp some sort of closure. Instead they unleash the spirit of the executed Forsythe, bent on the demise of everyone within the prison walls.

The movie is extremely successful at building tension, primarily due to its unique location. The prison is claustrophobic and in near ruin, with scant electricity, and filth and grime in every corner and crevice. That real tension is caught expertly on the faces of the actors, none more engrossing than Mortensen who manages to effortlessly channel equal parts James Dean and early Eastwood. Lane Smith is just as good, with a mostly engaging Chelsea Field in tow. Several of the inmates will be recognizable as familiar character actors, as well, but most interestingly and impressively of note here is that the majority of men selected to portray the inmates in the picture were at the time incarcerated at the real and operational prison that had been put up to replace the building in which the movie is set, including a primary character that just so happened to be a SAG card holder.

In congruence with the tension the film expertly builds was a severe dread that permeates almost every scene from the intro through to the end credits. Harlin's direction is excellent, and his handle on the proceedings is apparent from the starting frame as well. It's easy to see why Charles Band gave him the job. As well, the screenplay by Courtney Joyner is lean and nasty, adapted from a screenplay by the legendary Irwin Yablans, most notable for helping get John Carpenter's career going. Watchers should also love the score from Richard Band, who gave Danny Elfman a run for his money during his time with Empire Pictures. The real star here, though, is the cinematography by Mac Ahlberg. Always the favorite of Band's Empire Pictures, Ahlberg's filming here is perfect. Each shot is framed expertly and lit immaculately, lending a hugely stylized atmosphere to the film that enhances its effectiveness in scaring the hell out of you.

I must also mention the practical effects. They're awesome. Some of the gags that the crew came up with, led by John Carl Buechler, who I think should be just as notable for his hilariously dyed beard and mustache, are ingenious. There is one specifically involving a whole lot of barbed wire that is just as impressive as anything Tom Savini ever came up with in the 80's. Especially when bearing in mind the budget restraints the crew faced, their feats are all the more exhilarating to see happening on screen. Very convincing work, and ingeniously staged, making the most out of the location and the materials they had on-hand. This is especially heartening, as the practical effects are easily a facet that will either make or break a film. In this case, it's aces all across.

Scream Factory's blu-ray treatment is as always impeccable. The scan used for the disc is somewhat expectedly soft, but grain is well in tact and the detail is quite fine. Blacks are especially accurate, with no instances of murkiness, crush or distortion that I noted. The audio is lossless, and again, they made do with what they had. Not the pinnacle of audio treatment nor reference material, but equally impressive when considering the source and most existing masters being mono from a VHS master. The artwork has been beautifully commissioned and the cover for the blu-ray disc is reversible if you'd rather show off the original key art from the poster. There is an excellent, though sadly short (about 40 minutes) retrospective with interviews from Renny Harlin himself, Charles and Richard Band, Joyner, Irwin Yablans, and several others recounting the making of. Pretty awesome. Trailers and still art gallery round out the special features.

Now, as I stated in the beginning, it's a rare occurrence to be struck by anything original in horror, even back in '88 when the genre was stifled with generic serial killer slashers and dream invading undead. Prison is a rare breed of movie, basically made with guerrilla tactics and a modest budget that works to unseat the perceived normalcy in gory films by offering a unique and disturbing setting and an antagonist that is easy to rally against, even when the only protagonists are convicts and corrupt corrections officers. Done a beautiful service by the retro gods at Scream Factory, it's a great view of an A-List actor at the start of his game and easily the most impressive work that Renny Harlin has offered Hollywood during his storied career of highs and lows.

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