Thursday, February 21, 2013

Prison Prescription: PRISON (1988)

It is hard to believe that PRISON (1988) is 25 years old.  It seems like just yesterday I was flipping through a newspaper in a tiny library when I came across the stunning skull artwork for its U.S. theatrical release. Sure, I’d read about the film in Fangoria, but had not seen the poster yet (remember kids, this was before the internet).  It was so stunning that I immediately demanded a dime from my mom to make a xerox copy of it. For some reason I had an obsession with prison films from an early age (thank you ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ!) and the idea of a horror set prison ghost movie was incredible.  Our cruel mistress Hollywood was also in love with prison horror at the time as a glut of low budget horror films set in prison (SLAUGHTERHOUSE ROCK, DESTROYER, THE CHAIR, DEATH HOUSE) came out during this period. PRISON, however, was the first and the best of the bunch thanks to its succinct script and creative direction.

The film centers on hard-as-nails prison warden Ethan Sharpe (Lane Smith, fresh off the prison pic WEEDS) trying to reopen a Wyoming penitentiary.  Sharpe has a history with this place as he was a guard here in 1964 and present during the institution’s final execution of a con by the name of Charles Forsythe.  The old school Sharpe thinks prisoners should be seen/not heard and soon receives confrontation on several fronts.  First from Katherine Walker (Chelsea Field), a prison board member bent on reform and prisoner’s rights, and later from Burke (Viggo Mortensen), a young con who bears a striking resemblance to Forsythe.  But those troubles are manageable compared to the supernatural presence that has been unleashed after the sealed off electric chair chambers are unearthed.  Yes, Forsythe is still around and not too happy that he may have been sent to the hot seat for a crime he didn’t commit.

Revisiting PRISON after so many years (I probably last saw it 15 or so years ago), it is amazing to see what a solid film it really is on all levels from the acting to the special effects. One of the best things about prison is the screenplay by C. Courtney Joyner.  Producer Irwin Yablans originally wanted to simply recreate his slasher success HALLOWEEN (1978) inside a prison (the initial script was originally called HORROR IN THE BIG HOUSE).  It was Joyner who suggested a ghost story and that set up works perfectly within the confines of a penitentiary.  Another impressive thing about the screenplay is how it is not only a great horror film, but it is a perfect prison film as well.  It hits every cliché we’ve come to know and love from this subgenre, but each with its only unique horror twist.  So we get a prison escape bit, but with a guy dealing with pipes rather than tough “screws”; we get the dreaded “in the hole” sequence, but with fiery results.  Best of all, it makes the audience more sympathetic towards the prisoners.  Yes, we’re actually rooting for the criminals and murderers (and ghost), which is what every prison film worth its salt should do.  COOL HAND LUKE’s Strother Martin would definitely be upset by the script’s ability to communicate.

The new Shout Factory Bluray/DVD combo pack collector’s edition is sure to please any of the film’s fans.  Released on a full frame VHS by New World back in the 1980s, this latest release offers a gorgeous new transfer presented widescreen (1.78:1).  Harlin has always been noted for his visual style, but I actually think PRISON might be his best looking film.  This is mostly due to the crumbling real-life prison that was used for the location, which is captured incredibly by director of photography (and Empire mainstay) Mac Ahlberg.  I also say this because the film was low budget ($1.3 million) so Harlin hadn’t yet fallen in love the over-the-top effects that filled his films after this.  He and his crew were forced to be more resourceful with their limited funds and that results in some more creative and visually impressive ghostly activity (the glowing fire door or barb wire attack being great examples).

The extras were a big incentive for me in picking up this release.  The biggest one for me was “Hard Time: The Making of PRISON,” a 38 minute documentary about the making of the film. Tons of people are interviewed about the film with the majority of the behind-the-scenes info coming from director Harlin, producer Yablans, and screenwriter Joyner.  There are some fascinating revelations (like Thom Matthews being considered for the lead and baddie Rhino being a real con).  Also offering insight into the film’s production are genre staples Charles Band, Richard Band, John Buechler, and Kane Hodder. Another exciting extra is a feature length commentary by Harlin.  It is surprisingly candid at points (he admits to being scared to death while making the film, his first American feature) and Harlin seems genuinely appreciative of the experience (going so far as to say his work on this helped solidify his belief in prison realism on his work for the ill-fated ALIEN 3).  He does seem to disappear for minutes at a time in the commentary’s last half, but it is still a great track.  Rounds out the extras are some trailers and a still gallery.  I would have preferred more (a commentary with Joyner would have been amazing), but to think this film has been given such attention nearly three decades later is a blessing in itself; many thanks to Shout Factory for granting the film clemency for a new generation of horror fans.

Rare pic from Lane Smith's heavy metal career:


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