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STUDIO Shout! Factory
RUNNING TIME 102 Minutes
• Audio Commentary With Director Renny Harlin
• Hard Time: The Making of Prison
• Poster and Still Gallery
• Original First-Draft Screenplay (PDF Format) –
–It’s like The Shawshank Redemption with poltergeists!–
–Renny Harlin (Director), Viggo Mortensen, Chelsea Field, Lane Smith, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Tommy “Tiny” Lister–
–Creedmore Prison becomes a supernatural battleground when the specter of Charlie Forsythe, a man executed for murder, returns seeking vengeance from the brutal guard Ethan Sharpe, who was aware of his innocence. The lives of the inmates hang in the balance as Forsythe and Sharpe lock in demonic combat.–
–I am a rather unapologetic fan of Renny Harlin. He has indeed put out some horrible movies in his career but when he’s good, he’s good, even if the movie he’s making is entirely dumb (The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Deep Blue Sea, Die Hard 2.) So even though I’ve seen the “vengeful electric chair victim” story done a number of times, all of them terrible, I was intrigued by Prison.
As Renny himself tells it on the commentary Prison was his first American movie after making the English language film Born American in his home country of Finland. It deals with an old abandoned prison being re-opened due to overcrowding. The new warden, Ethan Sharpe (the always great Lane Smith) was a guard at the old prison. On the day the new prisoners arrive, a couple of cons steal a prison bus and attempt to escape. They are later literally cooked in the prison’s solitary confinement cells when an evil spirit that was wrongfully sentenced to the electric chair decides to settle a score he has with Warden Sharpe. Meanwhile, the cons are trying to figure out a way to escape before they’re killed off by this vengeful ghost. Burke (Viggo Mortensen), a car thief, is somehow involved in this though he has no idea why or how.
The casting of this movie is one of the first things I had to applaud. Any director that uses Lane Smith is wonderful in my book, but to put him in such a major role was a great choice. Smith works as the evil warden of a prison that is a human rights violation even by movie prison standards. He can be menacing or just wild-eyed crazy and manages to play both equally realistic. His finest moment is near the beginning where the prisoner is driving around the yard in the stolen bus and he just stands in its way and throws his coat at it as it comes to a stop only a couple feet away from him.
Renny Harlin says that with the character of Burke he wanted the new Paul Newman and it’s easy to see why he picked Viggo Mortensen for that role. Ignoring the obvious physical similarities, Mortensen brings that quiet boyish charm that Newman brought to his role in Cool Hand Luke. Mortensen does something that seems deceptively easy, playing a low-key and mostly silent protagonist that is impossibly kind to his fellow man but also crafty and tough when required, even though various terrible movies have shown this type of character usually comes off hollow or dull.
Chelsea Field also has a difficult role in that her character technically doesn’t even need to be in the movie. This could easily be an all-male cast, and Field as the prison board member that comes in an yells at Sharpe for his human rights violations doesn’t seem like an important part. I think a lesser director might have tried to work in a romantic subplot with Burke, but Harlin wisely lets Field stand on her own as a character and he talks about how hard it is with a strong female character to make her assertive but not make her come off as a bitch. He struck a nice balance and Field builds up sympathy for the prisoners and makes her character work and never seem obtrusive or tacked on.
The rest of the cons do a great job making their characters real and sympathetic as well. It partially helps that with a couple exceptions we don’t know what they’ve done, but they all play their parts great. Tommy “Tiny” Lister stands out particularly because he’s played as more than just a large ugly black guy (a role he’d be typecast into for the vast majority of his career), Lister was probably one of my favorite characters in the whole movie.
Another standout is Stephen E. Little in the role of Rhino, he’s a little reminiscent of M.C. Gainey but he’s a very good actor. This is mostly surprising because Stephen E. Little isn’t an actor, he’s an actual convict from Wyoming State Prison. Harlin convinced both the studio and prison to give him several actual convicts for the movie and though the extras all do great in their brief background appearances, Little plays a main character and he does it well. Prison was his only movie and I don’t know if he is still in prison or even still alive, but if he’s out it’s really a shame he hasn’t been in anything else.
The movie was made in the actual old Wyoming State Prison and the sets look amazing because of it. The prison never feels fake and that goes a long way towards keeping up the atmosphere the movie sets. The execution chamber seen at the beginning of the movie was actually a gas chamber (the electric chair was never used in the state of Wyoming) with an electric chair built into it for the movie. This gives that scene a particular nightmarish quality.
The death scenes are few but they’re all creepy and very gory. They’re also very imaginative which is what sets this movie apart from several similar vengeful prison ghost movies. One scene involving a guard and a roll of barbed wire is probably one of the best death scenes I’ve seen in any horror movie.
I do have one major gripe about the plot. Charlie Forsythe is portrayed as having been innocent of his crime of murdering another prisoner, so I am a little confused on why he’s killing prisoners primarily instead of guards. Also, we find out that Forsythe looked just like Burke, but this seems to not affect Burke in any way as he’s still targeted by the ghost and no significance is ever given to the two men looking alike.
I think that even if you aren’t a Renny Harlin fan and think he’s cranked out nothing but shit his entire career, you should probably give this movie a chance. It’s a taut, violent, and creepy little thriller that shows why a lot of people still forgive him for things like The Covenant or Exorcist: The Beginning.–
–Both DVD and Blu-Ray have great picture and sound quality and are loaded with special features. This is apparently Prison’s first time on DVD and Blu-Ray but even if there were a hundred other versions out there I would reccomend this one.
I particularly reccomend the commentary with Renny Harlin, the guy clearly loves what he does and is a much more thoughtful film-maker than you might believe.–
Out of a Possible 5 Stars