Monday, July 8, 2019

The Ghost of Inmate Past: Prison (1987)

Prison (1987)
Rating: ***1/2
Starring: Lane Smith, Viggo Mortensen, Chelsea Field

So there was a time in the late 80s and early 90s wherein we get this slew of horror movies about killers getting executed only to come back as (mostly electric) boogeymen. A lot of these will turn up as cult favorites like Shocker (1989) and The Horror Show (1989), though some seem to get the "Oh yeah, that existed" treatment, Prison (1987) being one of them which is kinda a shame for me since it's pretty fun on its own rights.

The film opens with a five-minute scene of an inmate getting escorted to an electric chair, with security guard Eaton Sharpe there to witness the final moments of this man as he go meet his maker with the help of ole' sparky. This event haunts Sharpe, all the way to twenty years later wherein he is now an appointment warden to the very same prison the electrocution took place, re-opened after it shut down back in the 60s.

Sharpe, truth be told, isn't quite cutting it as a prison warden as he appears tense, nervous and simply paranoid of just being there, but despite the objections of a sole female board member, he's to stay to oversee the first wave of convicts who will also be this prison's hired hands when it comes to the on-going renovations. In comes Burke (young Viggo Mortensen of the Lord of The Rings franchise, the amazing drama The Green Book (2018) and Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)) a car thief with a heart of gold who gets paired up with a more religious inmate and tasked to unearth a long-sealed execution chamber. After a couple of whacks and cracking it open though, the chamber appears to emits a strange light that's seemingly coming out of nowhere.

The light, unknown to them all, is actually a malevolent force that remained dormant in the prison until the cement wall went down, wasting no time haunting the joint and starting a supernatural killing spree by pressure cooking a poor sucker to flames inside an isolation chamber and was about to claim another when Burke shows up and saves the day. The incident gets swiftly swept under the rug as an accident, a claim soon to be proven wrong when another inmate -taking advantage of a blackout that left the automated bars unlocked- gets crushed and impaled to death by living pipes and rebars while attempting escape, his body then soon dropped from the ceiling in front of stunned cons the morning after.

As more of these accidents claim the lives of cons and officers alike, Sharpe slowly goes unhinged and resorts to demean the convicts through inhumane hardships to control the situation, little knowing that the murders are somewhat connected to an age old debt he had to who could be a murdered man. Until then, Burke and company has no choice but to try survive not only the wrath of an undead killer but also a deranged warden with some power of the state on his side.

Salad tossing prison drama with supernatural slasher together, Prison (1987) is written and produced by Irwin Yablans (who also produced Halloween (1978) and its sequel, Tourist Trap (1979) and Hell Night (1981)) who originally conceived it as a more traditional bodycounter titled Murder in the Big House, with a live fleshy killer stalking and murdering convicts within a prison. Changes were made when a screenwriter pointed out how little the plot made sense seeing there's bound to be more than one other killer in a prison who can easily snuff out a slasher, even more a live one, thus resulting to this atmospheric supernatural convict-on-peril slay-a-thon filmed in an actual abandoned prison, with actual convicts. (No, really. One of the actors, former stuntman Stephen E. Little, was serving a sentence of manslaughter at the time of this movie's filming)

It isn't perfect admittedly as there are some sub-plots and hinted elements that could have been addressed better and characterization is mostly one-note, particularly when it came with the other convicts and the only female cast among the sausage fest. (seriously for the latter, she only appears time to time to spew exposition and little else) Thankfully, there's enough gothic horror scenery, slasher-friendly gore, and prison drama to go along the decent actors, making up for Prison (1987)'s rather less-than stellar script.

The film certainly tries to work its way to create tension and tone as the first third of Prison (1987) is where all of the straight prison drama conventions get played out, from the surprisingly colorful and "quirky" convicts (here's to you, Tommy "Lasagna" Lister!) to the power play between either the prisoners or the hardass warden's little cavalcade of guards. It's done with a steady yet reasonable pace that did slow down in the middle to make more room for the hoosegow shenanigans, but the resulting manic prison riot climax where a good bulk of paranormal chaos ensues made the wait worthwhile. (Especially if it features a Kane Hodder cameo as the main boogeyman, who reportedly stuffed live worms in his mouth for his scene) Plus, in the movie's defense, the supernatural kills here are as awfully gruesome as they are outlandish, crafted away in gooey red practical effects (courtesy of  John Carl Buechler, who did the effects for Friday The 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988) and Curse of The Forty-Niner (2003)), with your classic fog effects and blue tinted lighting bringing out the macabre from the grimy and claustrophobic setting of the film's cryptic prison for that extra slice of near-Lynchian horror imagery.

In short, Prison (1987) is a bonafide lost classic that surpassed my expectations despite being flawed. It balanced out its big house character play with blood-chunky supernatural slasher quite well, granting us a final product that is far from golden, but crimson red enough to warrant a viewing or even a cult following from good horror fans.

1 male executed via electric chair
1 male cooked alive in a heated isolation chamber
1 male impaled to death by rebars and pipes
1 male crushed and garroted to death by barbwires
1 male blown through the chest by a beam of light
1 male electrocuted to death
1 male falls to his death off a ledge
1 male seen murdered
1 male thrown against a pole
1 male shot with a shotgun, left for dead
1 male shot dead by an automatic rifle
1 male impaled through the arse by a flung pickaxe
1 male shot to death
1 male found dead, cause unknown
1 male found dead, cause unknown
1 male bled to death from a shotgun wound
1 male electrocuted, immolated in a car explosion
Total: 17


  1. "So there was a time in the late 80s and early 90s wherein we get this slew of horror movies about killers getting executed only to come back as (mostly electric) boogeymen."

    I started making a list of these types of films, though I didn't dig too deeply, so there's probably more.


    I remember episodes of shows like Charmed and The Crow: Stairway to Heaven also using this plot.

    1. Wow, I haven't heard of half of these. Cant really call "Fallen" as a slasher film, though...

    2. Eh, let's call it an honorable mention.