Prison Blu-ray Review
Directed by Renny Harlin
Written by C. Courtney Joyner and Irwin Yablans
1988, Region A, 102 minutes, Rated R
Blu-ray released on February 19th, 2013
Viggo Mortensen as Burke
Lane Smith as Warden Sharpe
Chelsea Field as Katherine
Lincoln Kilpatrick as Cresus
Tom Everett as Rabbit
Tom “Tiny” Lister as Tiny
The former Creedmore Penitentiary is being re-opened due to budget cuts and over-population at the new prison. Warden Eaton Sharpe suffers recurring nightmares from his time as a guard here many decades ago and is in no mood for shenanigans as the new prisoners arrive. His first order of business is to have the execution chamber unsealed, an act that releases an evil entity in a flash of electric blue lightning. Soon, things take a sinister turn as inmates and guards begin turning up dead in truly bizarre fashion.
Unfortunately, in addition to the supernatural elements terrorizing the building, the Department of Corrections has sent over a woman to check up on the staff of the prison and make sure that the prisoners are all being treated humanely. Ghosts aren’t the only thing distracting Sharpe, as a few of the prisoners have caught the warden’s eye, including Burke, a new face who seems familiar, and also Cresus, an old timer who has been in the system forever and knows a few secrets from his time inside.
There has never been a shortage of cinematic ghost stories and each one seems to beg the question “Why don’t they just leave the house?” Prison dismantles that critique without even trying, and does so handily. The idea of a haunted prison is a lot of fun and writer Courtney Joyner (The Offspring) gets a lot of mileage from the basic concept. Based on a story by Irwin Yablans (Roller Boogie), the location is crucial and the filmmakers lucked out with the one provided by the state of Wyoming. Much time is spent exploring all of the creepy corridors and claustrophobic spaces as the prisoners are subjected to more intense situations that build to a riotous finale.
Prison features a strong cast of recognizable actors, many of whom were at the start of their careers. Viggo Mortensen (The Prophecy) has enjoyed the most success and it is easy to recognize his talent in this early piece. His performance is subtle as a short-time convict gradually pushed into the role of reluctant hero. Lane Smith (Dark Night of the Scarecrow) delivers some of his finest work as the evil warden, a role that in lesser hands could easily have been a flat riff on the traditional hard-ass stereotype. Chelsea Field (Dust Devil) and Lincoln Kilpatrick (Fortress) are strong supporting players that keep things grounded in the midst of all the mayhem. Fan favorite “Tiny” Lister (Friday) makes his debut as a surprisingly sympathetic prisoner.
Director Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger) makes an impressive genre debut, alternately building quiet suspense sequences before filling the murder set-pieces with a lot of energy and intensity. Any budgetary restrictions are carefully hidden, as the film looks terrific thanks in no small part to the striking production design and rich atmosphere. The late Mac Ahlberg (Hell Night) was an artist with light and has provided a distinct look to the picture here with stark lighting effects that bring a nice style to the proceedings. The film suffered the unfortunate fate of bad timing, in that it was made by Empire Pictures during their final days in existence and never received a proper theatrical run. Destroyer and The Chair were released the same year (1988) and met with some success, mostly on cable television and VHS, but of the three only Prison received a domestic DVD release and it only took 25 years.
Video and Audio:
Shout! Factory continues to impress with their lineup of retro horror films with this domestic debut of Prison on both DVD and Blu-ray formats. The film was previously available on a German import DVD that collectors can readily toss aside once they witness the upgrade here. Having undergone a healthy scrubbing for its HD debut, the picture looks cleaner and brighter than ever before. Presented in the original 1:85.1 aspect ratio and enhanced for widescreen monitors, viewers will find little to complain about. The image is a bit soft at times and colors muted, but this appears deliberate. There are a few instances of print damage but nothing horrendous.
The film is presented with a default DTS 5.1 HD master audio mix that provides an occasional workout for surround speakers during major set pieces, but is fairly absent for the majority of the film. There is also a DTS 2.0 HD mix that is probably stronger overall, with dialogue remaining clear on both options. English subtitles are provided.
Shout! Factory delivers another solid collection of supplemental treats that fans will greatly appreciate.
First up is an audio commentary with director Renny Harlin, who offers a laid back, conversational track filled with anecdotes ranging from how he got the job to the endless challenges he faced on set. He candidly admits to his shortcomings as a first time filmmaker and shares tales of working with the cast and special effects. One highlight includes the reveal that the background actors were actual prisoners under heavy guard. Harlin holds his own for the majority of the recording but slips into some occasional silences as he watches the film.
Hard Time: The Making of Prison (38 minutes) is a comprehensive look back at the production, featuring new interviews with several members of the cast and crew sharing a lot of information with a keen sense of nostalgia. Some of this information overlaps with Harlin’s commentary, but it is nice to hear their stories and everyone is thrilled that the film is finally getting a proper release.
Next up are a pair of theatrical trailers for both domestic audiences and their German counterparts.
Further marketing material is on display in a pair of still galleries offering production photos and poster art.
*Note: The screenshots on this page are not a reflection of the Blu-ray image. They were captured using the standard DVD.*