Not that long ago the video store was a mundane and sometimes obnoxious part of life; driving over to some lonesome strip mall with your friends or family to comb through the all-too-often disorganized shelves of your local shop, argue over a selection, and then be stuck with it, for good or ill. Yet, it was also sublime. And for those who lived during the true video boom, video stores also equate to another bygone commodity: VHS. When JVC’s Video Home System won the early-80’s format war, the motion picture market changed forever. The genre and B-movies that had previously filled drive-ins across the country now often went straight to VHS. Then DVD took the world by storm in the late-90’s. It was a brave new world, and sadly, many films never made the leap, trapped now on a dead format. These often aren’t “good” films, but goddammit, they were what made video stores great. For we here at CHUD are the kind of people who tended to skip over the main stream titles, our eyes settling on some bizarre, tantalizing cover for a film we’d never even heard of, entranced. These films are what VHS was all about. Some people are still keeping the VHS flame burning. People like me, whose Facebook page Collecting VHS is a showcase for the lost charms of VHS box artwork. With this column it is my intention to highlight these “lost” films and the only rule I have for myself is that they cannot be available on DVD.
Genre: Supernatural Horror
Tagline: Horror has a new home.
Released by: New World Video
Director: Renny Harlin
Plot: In 1964, inmate Charlie Forsythe is electrocuted for a crime he didn’t commit, unleashing a powerful supernatural force bent on vengeance. Many years later, the prison where this horrible case of injustice took place is reopened under the control of Warden Eaton Sharpe, a former guard and the one responsible for framing the innocent man who was fried. When two prisoners are ordered to knock down the wall of the old electrocution chamber, they free the pissed-off spirit of Forsythe, who starts killing everyone in his way, leading up to his ultimate nemesis – the Warden!
Thoughts: There was an interesting sub-genre of horror that sprang forth in the nineteen eighties with the issue of capital punishment as its primary theme. A horde of movies were released during this era dealing with a vicious killer receiving 60,000 volts of electrified justice dealt out by the state, only to return in some supernatural form to exact vengeance on the system and maybe even society as a whole. There was Wes Craven’s post-Nightmare B-side – Shocker, the jackhammer wielding Lyle Alzado classic Destroyer, and the awesome Sean S. Cunningham produced The Horror Show. But for my money, Renny Harlin’s Prison is by far the best of the lot.
The film is as if Stephen King had written The Shawshank Redemption like one of his horror novels, or imagine Cool Hand Luke with a Clive Barker makeover. The story is set and filmed in an actual abandoned prison in Wyoming and it’s seeping with atmosphere. The interiors are exceptionally dank and Mac Ahlberg’s cinematography utilizes them beautifully with that smoky eighties lighting, giving everything a steely gloss. Its original musical score by Richard Band and Christopher L. Stone provides a lot of suspense where needed and there’s some truly memorable gore scenes. Add to that a very original and well-written script that is not only a twisted supernatural revenge tale, but also a traditional prison movie that explores the camaraderie developed between men behind bars.
The cast is pretty exceptional as well. First, a baby-faced Viggo Mortensen plays the lead as Burke, a cool-as-a-cucumber new con who just may have a relationship with the restless spirit wreaking havoc. Veteran character actor Lane Smith portrays the evil Warden Eaton Sharpe, the man responsible for the horror that’s consuming everything around him as he tries desperately to maintain control of his prison. The character is tortured by guilt, which he deflects by dishing out unwarranted cruelty towards the inmates. His performance is fantastic, as he goes back and forth between fear and egomaniacal rage, creating an awesome villain.
There are other characters like Lasagna (Ivan Kane), an Italian guy who worships Stallone in a very homoerotic way, which he displays by choosing to pin up a poster of Rambo on his first day in the clink. His cellmate is none other than Zeus himself, the mighty Tom “Tiny” Lister in one of his first roles as a tough-but-likable convict, who has possibly one of the most amazing death scenes ever filmed in which he manages to break a guard’s body with his bare hands after he’s just been blasted in the stomach with a shotgun at point blank range.
This is Renny Harlin’s second feature right after Born American and before A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. It’s an excellent example of the director’s ability to elevate any genre film he makes by bringing out wonderful performances, setting a nice brisk pace in editing and overall making everything look absolutely gorgeous. It doesn’t hurt that he’s working from a very well written script by the awesome C. Courtney Joyner, the scribe responsible for the rarely seen anthology horror gem The Offspring, as well as the incredible Mark L. Lester directed sci-fi sequel insanity Class of 1999. Also, Irwin Yablans (the man who brought us the original Halloween) served as producer and provided the story, and the legendary Charles Band of Empire Pictures has his fingers in it as well.
It’s an above average, moody and extremely atmospheric little horror masterpiece that stands as a forgotten classic amongst the best of the era. Right before the VHS I watched started there was a coming attractions trailer of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser and all I could do is reflect on how glorious a time for the genre it was back then. Movies like these were actually common! This gleaming gem has only been available on analog for over twenty-five years, but I’ve got good news for you all, it’s finally getting released (on Blu-ray no less!) on February 19th, 2013 by Shout! Factory!!! Thank god the Warden has decided to grant parole to this particular prisoner from the great home video jail it’s been unjustly incarcerated in for over a quarter of a century now! Welcome home!
Post note: This review is dedicated to fellow CHUD colleague Mike Flynn, whose unabashed love and passion for this movie prompted me to write it up. He also provided a quote that I ruthlessly stole from him.
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