Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: Renny Harlin
Written by: C. Courtney Joyner
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Lane Smith, Kane Hodder, Chelsea Field, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Tom Everett & Arlen Dean Snyder
I originally discovered PRISON from Fangoria’s 101 Best Horror Movies You’ve Never Seen (a fun read for any fans of the genre). It took over two decades for the film to receive a proper home video release in the USA. Though not the greatest slasher of the 80’s and containing the usual pitfalls that a body count film usually has, PRISON is a cool little gem from the 1980’s that doesn’t get enough attention. Far from just a group of kids stranded in the woods or being stalked by a madman (which the majority of 80’s slashers were made of), PRISON mixes the prison genre with a ghost story and infuses a high number of sick kills that are among some of the most creative I’ve seen in an 80’s slasher. Besides featuring Kane Hodder in a largely off-screen role as the phantom killer, PRISON also showcases an early performance from Viggo Mortensen.
The Creedmore Prison has reopened after 20 years of abandonment. Burke (Mortensen) is among many inmates shipped into this decrepit building run by the crooked Warden Sharpe. After opening a walled-up execution chamber, a mysterious force is unleashed on the prison and the body count begins to rise. Neither prisoners nor guards are safe from this invisible killer offing people using what’s around them at the time (be it pipes, a confined metal room, or a roll of razor wire). It’s up to Burke and the other inmates to find out what’s really going on behind the killings and if the shady Sharpe has anything to do with it.
The really neat thing about PRISON is that it doesn’t play out like a traditional slasher for the most part. If I didn’t know better going in to it, I would have initially thought this was just an overlooked (but rather good) prison film from 1988. About a third of the movie sets the build-up for the story and develops the characters in entertaining ways. Though I wouldn’t say that I deeply cared for anyone, I was bummed when a few of the likable people bit it in fairly horrifying ways. The prison movie vibe lends itself to a smarter and more diverse group of possible victims (as in no dumb jocks, nerdy virgins, or slutty bimbos to be found here). These are hardened criminals (some of the extras were real inmates at a prison) and power-abusing guards biting it left and right. Thus mixing two well-known formulas into something fun to watch, though it does have a very significant set of problems in its final act.
The final 20 minutes of PRISON are a bit of a let-down. The momentum and tension built for nearly the entire movie is brushed off in a silly twist (that’s never fully fleshed out) and a rushed finale. After all the insane kills (one of which actually got an audible “Holy Shit!” from me), I wanted a huge climax loaded with nasty thrills. However, the best parts of the movie are the death scenes and those are mainly sprinkled through the middle. Though the ending is a disappointing conclusion to an otherwise very cool movie, the kills are a ton of fun to watch (with practical effects that hold up well today).
PRISON is entertaining in the way that only a cheesy 80’s slasher can be. You should already know by now if this movie is for you. There’s an attempt to have a more imaginative story at work, but everything cool plot-wise is swept up far too quickly in an ending that rushes through what should have been the film’s finest moment. The prison setting makes this ghostly slasher something out of the ordinary from tons of other silly body count flicks from this time period. It was neat to see Viggo Mortensen as a tough guy prisoner in an early role. Kane Hodder (known for playing Jason Voorhees in the later FRIDAY THE 13TH sequels) is briefly glimpsed as the specter responsible for the murders. The kills are gruesome and creative (which is what counts in making a fun movie of this type). Though it’s flaws weigh it down, PRISON is a cool and unusual supernatural slasher in an original setting.