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Prison (1988)

Shout! Factory
Blu-ray Disc Released: 2/19/2013

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2
Video: 1/2
Extras: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 2/9/2013

One of the great advantages of home video (and there are many) is that it made it much easier for film lovers to track down the works of a filmmaker who had piqued their interest. Most notably, we now had the ability to find the earlier works of a director who had made it big. Renny Harlin may not necessarily be a household name, but he's directed many familiar films, such as A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, and Deep Blue Sea. Originally from Finland, Harlin moved to the U.S. in the late 80s to attempt to make it in Hollywood. Thanks to Shout! Factory, we can now go back and see his first American film, Prison, on Blu-ray Disc. Does it offer any clues to the filmmaker he'd become?

As Prison opens, we learn that due to overcrowding a new prison needs to be built, but as it's not ready, inmates will be moved to an old, abandoned prison in the meantime, where they will be expected to clean and renovate the place under the watchful eye of Warden Eaton Sharpe (Lane Smith). Katherine Walker (Chelsea Field) is assigned to make sure that everything is done ethically. As the prisoners, who include Burke (Viggo Mortensen), arrive, it becomes clear that Sharpe is a harsh taskmaster who is hiding something from his past. The prisoners begin their work and once the old execution chamber is opened, strange things begin to happen around the old buildings and inmates and guards alike begin to die. Assuming that one of the inmates is responsible for the deaths, Sharpe pushes his cruel tactics further, refusing to let Katherine report on it. What has been released into the prison and what does it want?

No one likes to take credit for an idea like Producer Irwin Yablans. He'll tell anyone who will listen that he came up with the concept for John Carpenter's Halloween (but he didn't write the screenplay). Watch the extra features on Prison and you'll once again hear Yablans taking credit for being the jumping off point for a movie's story. Well, hears a little secret for Irwin -- when a movie never moves beyond or fleshes out its original idea, it's probably not going to be a very good movie and that's exactly what Prison does.

This is one of those movies where we know what is going on, but we only know that in the broadest sense of the word, as the movie isn't giving us very much information. This is only compounded by the fact that there are actually two stories going on in Prison, and, for the most part, they are happening independent of one another. First and (unfortunately) foremost, we have a fairly standard prison drama. We meet the inmates, who fall into the standard stereotypical categories (the strong, quiet guy; the old-timer; the energetic younger guy; the domineering one and his "bitch" (although, I don't think that word is used here)) and watch them play out the drama of prison-life, complete with riots, cell searches, and exercise yard stand-offs. Sharpe uses his iron fist to try and control the convicts and keep things under control, but he only makes things worse with his cruel tactics.

Then we have the other part of the movie, which is supposed to be a ghost story/horror film. The film opens with an execution which occurred in the past, and we easily surmise that Sharpe had something to do with it. Once the execution chamber is opened, strange blue lights occur just before something bad happens. I just thought that James Cameron was haunting the place. The incidents involve inmates and guards dying in decidedly mysterious ways, but we never seen the ghost. In fact, it takes 97 minutes for the ghost to appear and it's only on-screen for mere seconds. Otherwise, we are simply left with those blue lights. And, the story of the execution and Sharpe's involvement is never made whole. So, again, we know what is going on in the sense that we've seen enough movies to grasp that something evil has escaped and it's killing people, but we get little more than that. And we never learn why an angry ghost convict would kill other convicts. Shouldn't it just go after the guards and Sharpe.

All told, Prison is a pretty bad movie, as its horror side is simply too vague and pointless and the prison movie side is too cliched. It's clear that Harlin attempted to give the movie an interesting look, as the use of the blue lights is nice and the death scenes are all shot in cool ways. But, when the actors are simply talking, the movie grinds to a halt. Obviously, it's interesting to see Viggo Mortensen in this, but one can't help but wonder if this movie is still on his resume. I'll give you this Mr. Yablans, the idea of a haunted prison movie is a good one, but this film doesn't live up to that promise.

Prison is oddly cavalier with its use of slurs which are offensive to Italians on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Shout! Factory. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 30 Mbps. This is one of those transfers which is difficult to judge. The image is relatively sharp and clear, given the film's age and budget. There is some mild grain here at times, and we get some minor defects from the source material, such as small scratches and black dots. The most noticeable thing is that the look leans a little too much to the dark side. The action borders on being difficult to make out in some shots. The image is somewhat soft and some shots lack in detail. The depth is OK, but it borders on being flat. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 3.5 Mbps. This track is decidedly unstable and the dialogue is often very low and muffled. If it weren't for the subtitles, I don't know if I would have understood what was being said at times. At times, this sounds like a mono or stereo track at best, and then we'll suddenly be treated to some surround. The surround portion of this track is too hit or miss and it often sounds as if the audio from the rear channels is simply punctuating what is coming from the front, as opposed to acting independently.

The Prison Blu-ray Disc contains several extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director Renny Harlin. "Hard Time: The Making of Prison" (38 minutes) is a modern-day featurette which contains interviews with Harlin, Executive Producer Charles Brand, Producer Irwin Yablans, Writer C. Courtney Joyner and a few other crew members. The discussion centers around the scripting of the film and the discovery of the prison location, as well as making the film on a budget. There is also a discussion of the cast and casting process, but actor Tom Everett is the only cast member to appear here. The piece contains many clips from the film, but no on-set footage or stills. Despite that, there is a lot of information here. We get the U.S. TRAILER and the GERMAN TRAILER. The final extra is a series of STILL GALLERIES, which includes "Stills from the Film", "Posters and Stills", and "Photo of the Wyoming State Prison".

Review by Mike Long. Copyright 2013.