Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel “THE I IN EVIL”, and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
FANGO Flashback: “PRISON”Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
For longtime readers of FANGORIA.com, this writer’s affection for the work of Renny Harlin has been well-documented. With genuinely awesome cinematic offerings such as MINDHUNTERS, DEEP BLUE SEA, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET PART IV, THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT, DIE HARD 2 and CLIFFHANGER under his belt, few directors can capture the spirit of popcorn entertainment better than Harlin. Even his cinematic missteps- FORD FAIRLANE, DEVIL’S PASS and EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING- are perhaps hobbled by their own ambition, and the fact that they still are fairly entertaining in their own right is a testament to Harlin’s work as a filmmaker. Yet unfortunately, too few horror hounds have seen one of Harlin’s legitimately best terror titles: the 1988 haunting thriller PRISON.
With the minds of Harlin, HALLOWEEN producer Irwin Yablans, FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM’s C. Courtney Joyner and Empire Pictures’ Charles Band all working in tandem, PRISON’s insane supernatural element surprisingly comes second to its genuinely unique revenge story and the strong performances at hand. For those unfamiliar, PRISON follows a derelict prison, re-opened years after a wrongly-convicted man was executed. With the prison re-opened and a corrupt former security guard promoted to Warden, the new inmates find the old jail to be a living hell. However, when a pair of inmates accidentally unleash the executed man’s spirit, no one is safe from the ghoul’s visceral vengeance.
In terms of simply the horror elements, PRISON delivers in a big, bloody way. On one hand, practical and optical FX (overseen by Empire Pictures’ in-house maestro John Buechler) are pulled off incredibly well, with some of the elaborate death sequences looking absolutely stunning. On the other hand, Harlin truly nails the atmosphere of the film as well, using the location and production design to sell an exceptionally eerie locale and establish the film’s intensity fairly quickly. And for those who like claustrophobic ensemble pieces, PRISON wisely plays with its tone to make the characters colorful and even occasionally sympathetic, making the numerous ways their expelled from this mortal coil all the more memorable.
Yet even beyond the horror elements, PRISON is a success story on a narrative level, with Joyner’s superb script and Harlin’s lean, mean direction crafting a film that earns every one of its achievements. The action feels big, the dialogue is fun and the story itself never feels especially spoonfed to the viewer, and while some sub-plots are underserved- Chelsea Field’s Katherine is largely (and sadly) left on the sidelines to further the supernatural A-story-, PRISON actually offers some great character drama as well. And with a fantastic, minimalist lead performance by Viggo Mortensen to anchor the film, PRISON really does right by most of the characters, giving the likes of Tom Everett, Lane Smith, Tiny Lister and more more than enough moments to shine in their own right.
PRISON is also a technical feat as well, as the film looks and sounds great in addition to its solid narrative. While Harlin’s direction is impressive for a filmmaker who had never previously worked with a substantial budget, Mac Ahlberg’s cinematography certainly elevates the film even further, gorgeously painting the supernatural sequences while offering a dark, destitute visual atmosphere for the straightforward prison scenes. Meanwhile, Richard Band and Christopher L. Stone’s score complements Ahlberg’s visuals incredibly well, acting as a aural punctuation mark to PRISON’s epic cinematic scale. And while Buechler’s FX deserve the utmost praise, one would be remiss to gloss over Kane Hodder’s fantastic stunt coordination, as the frenetic action of the film (especially in the third act) really helps establish PRISON as far from the everyday ghost story.
Overall, PRISON is a movie that many fright fans have yet to find the chance to see for themselves, but absolutely should seek out. Throughout PRISON, a viewer really can see Harlin find his directorial footing, and for every cheer-worthy gore reveal or fantastic effect, there’s a corresponding character moment that helps get the audience invested more than your average horror offering. And with the film on Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory, one can spend some time in PRISON without having the grimiest presentation possible on hand. Viva la Harlin!