n 1988, before he would go on to become synonymous with Hollywood action films like Deep Blue Sea and Die Hard 2: Die Harder, Finnish director Renny Harlin would make a small dent in the horror genre with the one of the last of Charles Band's Empire Pictures productions, Prison. The film was made in 1988 (the same year the director lensed A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master), making it a busy year for the fledgling director who would soon go on to much bigger projects than this.
In the film, Viggo Mortensen (before he become Aragorn in Peter Jackson's epic Lord Of The Rings Trilogy) plays Burke, a recently incarcerated prisoner sent along with two hundred and ninety nine other inmates to rejuvenate Wyoming State Penitentiary. The prison was shut down long ago but due to recent budget cuts, it's being reopened to make room for the inmates. Due to an increasing population and those aforementioned budget cuts, it seems that that there is no room for these guys in the other prisons. This doesn't sit well with Katharine (Chelsea Field), who works for the Department Of Corrections and wants to ensure that the prisoners are given a fair shot at reform.
After everyone moves in, the sadistic warden of the prison, Sharpe (Lane Smith, who played Nathan on V), sends Burke and another inmate to the basement to open up the old execution chamber. By doing so he unwittingly unleashes the ghost of an old inmate who was put to death in the prison years ago before it was closed. Obviously, no good can come of this and things go horribly wrong for all involved from here on out and - and we'll leave at that as we don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen the movie before.
Harlin crafts a nice little horror movie with this one. Some of the effects are a little bit dated, particularly the energy/laser effects that we see in the later part of the movie, but other than that, this movie is quite well done and it holds up very well. If it tends to drag ever so slightly in a couple of scenes, for the most part it is pretty well paced. The movie also features some impressive performances, even if Lane Smith as Sharpe is a bit reminiscent of Tommy Lee Jones' character in Natural Born Killers (which Prison predates by quite a few years). Mortensen shows his leading man potential here and he's got a solid screen presence that definitely works in the movie's favor. While we're not surprised where things go with Chelsea Field's character, she plays her part well too and all involved do a good job of injecting some believable and interesting personality into their characters. This goes a long way towards making the movie more interesting than it would have been had the script not fleshed the main players out as carefully as it does and had the cast not been up to the challenge of bringing those details to life. Supporting efforts from Larry Jenkins, Ivan Kane and Tom Everett are also easy to appreciate and help fill in the inmate population of the prison nicely.
A couple of interesting gore set pieces and a truly amazing location combine to make for an atmospheric and moody chiller that's not a bad way to kill an evening. Harlin does a great job of integrating the prison location into the movie so that it becomes as important to the story as any of the actual characters themselves. The movie was actually shot on location by the late, great Mac Ahlberg at Wyoming State Penitentiary and Harlin uses the authenticity of the set to maximum effect. The end result is a solid horror film with some interesting revenge elements worked into the script that winds up a pretty atmospheric and occasionally intense viewing experience. Solid entertainment through and through.The Blu-ray:
Prison debuts on Blu-ray in AVC encoded 1.78.1 widescreen in 1080p high definition. Aside from some softness inherent in the original photography and which has always been part of the movie's look, the film looks very good here. The image is clean and shows solid detail for a modestly budgeted picture of this vintage, while skin tones look lifelike and natural. Texture is pretty strong and color reproduction is impressive. Black levels are solid and there are no obvious issues with compression artifacts, edge enhancement or noise reduction. Grain is intact but never distracting and there are no serious problems with print damage to note. The movie looks very good here, Shout! Factory have done a fine job in the video department.Sound:
DTS-HD tracks are provided in 5.1 Surround Sound and 2.0 Stereo, both in English with optional subtitles offered up in English only. The 5.1 track offers some additional depth to scenes that the 2.0 track does not but it's not the most consistent surround remix you're ever going to here and there are spots where the levels seem to fluctuate a bit. The 2.0 mix suits the movie better and feels more appropriate here and it doesn't have the level fluctuations that the 5.1 track does. Both tracks offer clear dialogue and sound decent enough for what they are but unless you're a surround junkie, opt for the stereo track. The score sounds nice and strong here, the effects have the right amount of punch behind them and it just feels more accurate and more consistent. Both tracks are nice and clean though, with no audible problems regarding noise or distortion.Extras:
The extras kick off with a pretty interesting audio commentary from director Renny Harlin. As this was his first American feature he talks about some of the differences between the European film industry where he got his start and the American film industry and also talks about Empire Pictures a bit, giving us some welcome background information on how this project came to be. In addition to that, however, he also does a good job of talking about how important getting the characters right is for a movie set in a prison in addition to discussing some of the challenges that arose shooting inside an old prison location. He covers some of the effects work, discusses the contributions of the various cast and crew members and generally just does a really good job of detailing the history of the movie from his perspective.
Also included here is a thirty-eight minute retrospective featurette entitled Hard Time: The Making Of Prison. This is made up of a selection of newly shot interview footage with Harlin, the film's producer Irwin Yablans, writer C. Courtney Joyner, stunt coordinator (and Jason Vorhees actor!) Kane Hodder, executive-producer and Empire pictures guru Charles Band, his brother composer Richard Band, production designer Philip Duffin and production assistant Patrick Denver. This is a pretty solid piece that lets a lot of those who had a hand in bringing this movie to completion discuss their efforts and the efforts of others in doing just that. Again we hear about the state of Empire Pictures at the time and how Harlin came on board and again we hear about the location but there's a fair bit more emphasis on the sets, the effects and the technology behind some of the key scenes in the movie that isn't covered in Harlin's commentary. There's also a good bit of discussion of the themes and characters that populate the script and how they were handled during the production. It's a well put together piece that fills in some of the blanks that Harlin's commentary can't help but leave out.
Rounding out the extras are the film's original American theatrical trailer, a German theatrical trailer, and a few nifty still galleries featuring stills from the film, poster and promotional art and some location shots of the prison. Animated menus and chapter selection are also included and all of the extras on the Blu-ray are in high definition. As this is a combo pack release, a standard definition DVD is also included inside the keepcase. The cover art is reversible with some newly commissioned art on the front and a reproduction of the original poster art on the back, and the keepcase fits nicely inside a slipcover.Final Thoughts:
Prison was a long time coming to domestic DVD and Blu-ray but Shout! Factory's release is a good one, offering up the movie with a very nice transfer, a decent 2.0 track and an optional 5.1 mix, and a few choice extras that compliment the film and document its history. The movie itself remains as atmospheric as it is entertaining, a fast paced horror film with some well played elements of revenge performed by a very game cast and reeled in by a talented director. Recommended.