Home > Movie Reviews > Prison
I'm not the criminal type. I'm not the type of guy who would knock over a liquor store, hot-wire a car, shoot a police officer or sell illegal drugs to junior high students. I've had my dark and dangerous times, but for better or worse, they don't write rebel songs about yours truly. Hey, I'm just huggably law-abiding that way, a regular Boy Scout.
That, and I would crumble like stale bread in prison. Oh sure, I admit it. I'd be shanked or married to the biggest brute on the block by the end of the second day. Don't even get me started on the showers. I'm too law-abiding to be sent up the river. Good news, because I'm too soft for the prison system.
Not that the ensemble in the film PRISON is much to worry about. Oh, there are some real creeps here, complete with bigots and big guys who make their cellmates their love slaves. But for the most part, it's just a group of misfits who bond together against a common enemy. This isn't HBO'S OZ, more like THE DEAD END KIDS GO TO SHAWSHANK.
A group of convicts are being transferred to an old, run-down prison that is opening its doors once more - an attempt to deal with overcrowding in the jail cells. The warden is a relic in his own right. Sharpe (Lane Smith - MY COUSIN VINNY) rules the prison with an iron fist. And when that doesn't work, he's not above using that fist to bash the prisoners' heads open. None of this sits well with the liberal-minded Katherine (Chelsea Field - MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, DUST DEVIL, THE LAST BOY SCOUT), who doesn't approve of Sharpe's strong-arm tactics.
The group of convicts is the typical ensemble. Our hero is Burke, played by - I'm not kidding - Viggo Mortensen (28 DAYS, THE PROPHESY, the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy). Burke is a professional car thief who finds himself in stir for the first time. He's a good-natured guy and only his rebellious nature makes him a strong force on the block.
The rest are made up of various stereotypes. We have the previously-mentioned molester and bigot. For good measure, we're also given the crazy guy, the escape artist, the guy with a plan, etc. What's truly astounding is that we also have one of the most shocking Italian stereotypes I've seen in recent memory. He endlessly talks about his Brooklyn upbringing, pasta and his obsession with Sylvester Stallone, whether he's asked or not. His name? Lasagna.
All in all, the group is mildly unnerving, but not threatening. These guys barely even swear.
The real threat comes from Sharpe, who immediately sentences two prisoners to six months in the hole, a truly extreme punishment. He also has the prisoners beaten, stripped and humiliated. He has their mattresses burned and forces them to sleep outdoors (which really isn't too bad, when they're usually confined to concrete cells - kind of a wilderness retreat for thieves and child molesters really).
Sharpe is a bit paranoid and why not? Strange things have been happening at the prison. Noises and other weird things. Most notably, lightning bolts have been shooting out of nowhere and the prisoners have been dying in strange ways. Somehow, it's all linked to a man who was electrocuted years before.
Throughout Smith's performance, I kept trying to think of who he reminded me of. Then, while chewing out the convicts (and the scenery) yet again, his head hunched down, his eyes rolled into the back of his head and his arms were thrust into the air. It hit me. At times, he looks and sounds just like a crazed Richard Nixon! In fact, Smith would portray Nixon in the TV movie, THE FINAL DAYS, just one year after this film's release. Maybe he was preparing for that role, while picking up an extra paycheck.
Whatever the case, the writing allows for good and bad things with the Sharpe character. It allows him to show fear about his past catching up with him, thus making him more well-rounded than most of the cast. But it also makes him such a hard case that you can't believe in his character or anything else really. You expect wardens to be tough, but there's no way Sharpe would get away with his shenanigans in the mid-20th century.
In fact, that's the main flaw of PRISON. It takes the basic template of a prison. It's even filmed inside an actual prison. But it has no idea how the prison system works. This is an early film from Renny Harlin (THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT, CLIFFHANGER, DEEP BLUE SEA) but he doesn't show the talent he would later in his career. And yes, unlike some I do think Harlin showed talent later in his career.
The underlying theme of the film seems to be a strong case for prison reform but they drop the ball. It's a naíve and one-dimensional statement because of the cast they've assembled. The warden is too hard and the prisoners are way too soft.
My cousin used to be a prison guard at a maximum security prison in New York. He used to tell us about the ordinary run of things and what was expected. The few nuggets I got did not make me an expert by any stretch. But it's enough for me to know that the filmmakers have it all wrong. So is any book, television special, news report or documentation about the prison system.
Another flaw is the basic horror elements. This is a ghost story with a great setting, so it's sad to see it fall into the same trappings as many other films from the eighties. We get some nifty gore set-pieces. The best is a man who is lashed to a chair with barbed wire. The worst is the improbable case of a man who is crushed by steel bars until he explodes like a ticking time bomb. Huh?
In the opening scene, there is a long walk towards an electric chair. Everything is very suspenseful until the switch is pulled and it looks like a 1970s progressive rock concert. From then on, we get a lot of lasers and lightning bolts flying about, a theme that continues throughout the film. A laser light show is not scary, but no one told this group of artistes. It falls into the convention of stressing effects rather than suspense or ambiance.
Renny Harlin would start his onwards and upwards transition later this very same year with A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: THE DREAM MASTER. Certainly one of the goofier outings in that franchise, but also one of the most stylish. Here, everything is drab and one wonders if the emphasis is even on the horror.
In truth, most of the blame probably lies with writer C. Courtney Joyner (LURKING FEAR, TRANCERS III). He fails to create a menacing atmosphere, using Sharpe as the real menace. But then why should we fear the ghost when the warden is obviously much worse? And why should we fear the warden when everything is made to be such a cardboard cut-out?
PRISON got a big push from Charles Band's old company, Empire. It was released into theatres and got a lot of advertising time on syndicated stations. It even boasted a budget of $1 million, like getting blood from a stone if you're dealing with Charles Band.
But the film doesn't feel fully formed. It's a weak political statement with an even weaker ghost story thrown in for good measure. I honestly believe PRISON could have been a terrifying and memorable experience. Mostly, it's memorable only because the cast and crew went on to better things. Lock it up and throw away the key, this is a dead film walking.