Prison (1987)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #263

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Number of Views: Three
Release Date: March 4, 1988
Genre: Supernatural
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $4,000,000
Running Time: 102 minutes
Director: Renny Harlin
Producers: Charles Band, Irwin Yablans
Screenplay: Irwin Yablans, C. Courtney Joyner
Special Effects: Eddie Surkin, John Carl Buechler, Michael Deak
Cinematography: Mac Ahlberg
Score: Richard Band, Christopher L. Stone
Editing: Andy Horvitch
Studio: Empire Pictures
Distributor: Empire Pictures, Shout! Factory
Stars: Viggo Mortensen, Chelsea Field, Lane Smith, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Tom Everett, Ivan Kane, André De Shields, Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister, Stephen E. Little, Mickey Yablans, Larry Flash Jenkins, Arlen Dean Snyder, Hal Landon Jr., Matt Kanen, Rod Lockman, Jeff L. Deist, Kane Hodder

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Suggested Audio Candy

Richard Band & Christopher L. Stone “Prison”

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One of my favorite pastimes as Keeper is to signpost you to lesser known delights the likes of which have long since been lost in the sands of time. It saddens me to consider that certain works exist that many may well never have been heard of, let alone had the pleasure of watching. Working in a video store throughout my entire pubescence meant that precious little escaped my scrutiny and, every once in a while, a film like Prison came along and knocked me sideways. It is with distinct honor that I share my experience with you fine people now.


Finnish filmmaker Renny Harlin is best known for glossy studio action features such as The Long Kiss Goodnight, Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger. Folk conveniently forget The Adventures of Ford Fairlane which happens to be an unparalleled guilty pleasure of mine but that’s a different story. He occasionally dipped into the horror genre and, one year before directing the somewhat hard done-by A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, he conjured up this mean-spirited and vastly atmospheric chiller. It disappeared from trace faster than you could slap handcuffs on it and ended up consigned to death row for its troubles. I’m telling you now that it reeks of false imprisonment.

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The story is basically your good old-fashioned haunted house premise, only relocated to a ramshackle Gothic prison setting for added menace. It tells of the injustice of inmate Charles Forsyth, who was sent to the electric chair for a crime he didn’t commit, and consequently haunts the place of his execution. When the prison is reopened, and its sadistic new warden Eaton Sharpe introduced, he begins to suffer lurid nightmares. Formerly a former security guard who framed Forsythe, his hands are anything but clean and, when the prisoners are ordered to break down the wall to the execution room, they unwittingly release the malevolent spirit where it continues its murderous rampage.

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The whole vengeful wraith plot has been done to death but, what makes Prison so remarkable is Harlin’s zeal behind the camera. In many ways his movie resembles Michael Mann’s The Keep. He douses every frame in focused azure light and flickering shadows, perfectly capturing the containment of prison life and steadily building the pressure with every insular shot and foul revelation. He is also aided by a more than capable ensemble cast which include Lane Smith as the corrupt hard-line governor with enough skeletons in his closet to start a new army of darkness and Viggo Mortensen who was virtually unknown at the time and gives his best impromptu James Dean impression as leading man Burke.

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Chelsea Smith, whilst given less to do as Katherine in a predominantly male environment, performs well also, coming across much like a young Karen Allen and there are smaller roles for Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister (Friday), Hal Landon Jr. (Bill & Ted) and Tom Everett (Dances With Wolves) as want-away scoundrel Rabbitt. If you need further proof of authenticity then how do you like these apples? Many of the inmates are played by real-life convicts. The undisputed star of the show however is Forsythe. Instead of masquerading as another masked madman or hulking decomposing juggernaut, he is a baleful specter with the most heinous designs for the increasingly jittery jailbirds.

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From impeccable production design, to stylish cinematography and a glorious pulsating score from Richard Band and Christopher L. Stone heightening the oppressive atmosphere, it is hard to imagine that this was of relatively humble origins. It took nearly two years for Prison to see the light of day as Empire Pictures were in mid-bankruptcy during conception. Astonishingly, given the abundance of talent on exhibit, it was looking like a life sentence in ‘the hole’ before Shout! Factory finally picked up the reigns in 2013 and gave it the Blu-Ray parole it so richly deserved. Thank God for small mercies.

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It pains me to consider that most of y’all probably haven’t had the Prison experience at least once in your lives. It is an exemplary ghost story with a real mean streak which courts as much progressive frenzy in its addressee as it does its doomed inmates. It’s also a tough prison-drama and frighteningly realistic to boot. Most critically it is unbelievably tense right through to its thrilling finale and easily one of the eighties finest unsung horror flicks. This is one incarceration you won’t forget in a hurry and dropping the soap-on-a-rope in the shower is the least of your problems when doing time in this particular prison.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Grue Factor: 4/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: The special effects are uniformly impressive and the kills increasingly creative and grisly. An agonizing barbed-wire mummification is the standout but there is more than enough sickening grue to feed an entire mess hall. Moreover, no mercy whatsoever is shown and those who die, do so horribly.

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Read The Horror Show Appraisal

Read A Nightmare on Elm Street Appraisal

Read Bad Dreams Appraisal

Read Deep Blue Sea Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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