An awesome blend of supernatural suspense and graphic slasher elements with fantastically gruesome kills, 'Prison' takes the standard haunted house plot and sets it in a place where no one can literally escape. When the state can't afford to build a new state-of-the-art correctional facility, those in charge decide to recycle what's already available: an abandoned, dilapidated, and practically falling apart penitentiary. In order to save a few more dollars, they figure on hiring the cheapest clean-up crew around — the prisoners themselves. If they're going to live there, they might as well learn how to keep it nice and tidy. Brought in by the bus loads, the inmates are tentatively watched by armed guards while the grisly body count starts to mount.
The facility has been closed since 1964 soon after the execution of Charlie Forsythe, making him the last and final man to live in death row. We see the high-voltage demise of Charlie during the movie's opening credit sequence, hinting at the cause of the haunting after the prison reopens but rightfully keeping the actual reasons a mystery. Two decades later, the new residents arrive at a ramshackle of a building, the sort we know instantaneously as place no one should spend the night. It's cold and damp with cobwebs covering every corner, paint peeling off the walls and rust growing everywhere. Lane Smith, who we recognize from the intro, serves as Warden Sharpe, a man we love to hate because he's so mean, coldhearted and vicious, often punishing the men seemingly for his own pleasure.
Trying to keep an eye on him is Chelsea Field as the kindhearted social worker who genuinely cares for the welfare of the prisoners. She's constantly searching for excuses to shut the place down, particularly when inmates are burned alive while in the hole or dropped from the ceiling during lunch like processed beef. Of course, it doesn't hurt that part of her passionate pursuit also grows more determined after locking eyes with the handsomely debonair Viggo Mortensen. When the two characters first meet, sparks instantly fly. It's an unintentionally comical sequence because it's also ridiculously cliché. While at the infirmary to heal his wounds after inadvertently opening the ghostly gateway to a vengeful Charlie, these two take a romantic moment for themselves, and thereafter, take every opportunity to share obvious glances with one another.
On a more serious note, however, the low-budget flick is the second directorial feature from Renny Harlin, just a few years shy of setting box-office records with the Geena Davis vehicle 'Cutthroat Island.' Surprisingly, he does an impressive job at building an atmosphere and sustaining an ominous tone throughout, scarcely relying on typical jump scares to keep his viewers invested. The kills, of which there are only three that could be called explicitly gruesome, are slow and methodical. Objects leisurely creep around the victim's body, unnoticed and unheard until it's too late, ending in some dastardly yet shockingly creative ways to die. Shot on location at Wyoming's Old State Penitentiary, the derelict building adds an amusingly creepy vibe to the story and these practical special effects.
The other entertaining aspect is uncovering the mystery behind Charlie's ghostly haunting, one that appears to involve Warden Sharpe. Lincoln Kilpatrick also stars as a fellow inmate connected with the institution's past and Sharpe's involvement. Produced by Full Moon Features creator Charles Band, the story comes from Irwin Yablans, the original mind and inspiration behind John Carpenter's 'Halloween.' As the mystery unfolds, it comes down to a head in a fantastically wild climax that's both ridiculously funny and terrifically satisfying. 'Prison' is an all-but forgotten supernatural feature with plenty to admire and enjoy, arriving to digital home video release in the U.S. for the very first time, where it will hopefully find a more appreciative audience.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Shout! Factory brings 'Prison' to Blu-ray as a two-disc Collector's Edition package under the distributor's Scream Factory line. The Region A locked, BD50 disc is accompanied by a DVD-9 copy of the movie on the opposing panel. Both are housed inside a blue, eco-elite keepcase with brand new reversible cover art and a cardboard slipcover.
At startup, the disc goes to a generic main menu selection on the left side while the movie's music and full-motion clips play in the background. Also, if you buy direct from the Shout! Factory website, fans can get an exclusive, limited edition poster of the newly commissioned artwork with their purchase, while supplies last!
'Prison' breaks out unto Blu-ray with a very good and highly-stylized AVC-encoded transfer (1.78:1). The picture quality looks every bit its age with lots of softness, and the source shows a few white specks, some minor scratches and a couple brown vertical lines. Diffusers and soft focus were used extensively, but we still get plenty of sharp details and revealing facial complexions. The film also appears to have been shot in low contrast, making highlights bloom somewhat in several spots, yet whites remain crisp and cleanly-rendered. Thankfully, black levels are not affected much, looking quite strong and deep with excellent shadow delineation. Colors are bold and energetic, especially reds and greens. With a nice layer of visible grain throughout, the movie looks great in HD.
With a choice between the original stereo and an upgraded 5.1 DTS-HD Master track, the former sounds like the clear winner, as it fits better with the film and its age. The soundstage is wide and spread out evenly across the screen with good channel separation. The mid-range is cleanly detailed with several action sequences that peak but don't falter or distort. Bass is natural and appropriate, providing just the right amount of weight and depth to gunshots and explosions.
The 5.1 mix offers much of the same, except it opens up the soundfield with several spatial effects of the prison. It's nothing particularly special or worthwhile, and it can feel somewhat artificial during several moments. Both soundtracks deliver excellent dialogue reproduction in the center, and in the end, listeners can't go wrong with either high-rez options.
Conventional supernatural haunting with graphic slasher elements set inside a correctional facility, 'Prison' is an amusingly impressive horror B-feature starring Viggo Mortensen, Chelsea Field and Lane Smith. For decades, the only way to watch the movie was on VHS or foreign bootlegs, but is now made available for the first time on a digital format thanks to Shout! Factory. The Blu-ray edition arrives with a great picture quality but a slightly less-than-satisfying audio presentation. It would have been nice to see more bonuses, but what's made available is pleasing nonetheless, making the overall package something cult enthusiasts and collectors will want to pick up while neophytes should give it a rent.