I feel obligated to preface my review of Renny Harlin’s 1988 thriller Prison by stating that I am NOT the world’s biggest Renny Harlin fan. I’ve said this before and I will say it again. Some filmmakers do not understand the difference between action and suspense. Mr. Harlin falls under this category. All one has to do is watch his version of Exorcist 4 (remember the first one filmed was Paul Schrader had directed the first one, then Renny made his version and his version was released first) to see what I mean. Crappy CG effects, explosions, a guerrilla revolt warfare subplot infused within William Peter Blatty’s world. I remember walking out so disappointed…so let down by him. Paul Schrader’s vision, despite being released with unfinished effects and editing, was far superior because Paul Schrader understands action from suspense.
Back to Prison…The crux of the story is a guy is wrongfully electrocuted then he comes back from the dead to enact revenge on those that have wronged him. There is a funky ‘reincarnation/doppelgänger’ concept that is never fully realized but that aside it’s a story told quite well. Prison has a lot of things going for it. Excellent set designs within an actual Wyoming state penitentiary (adds so much to production value), some impressive practical gore effects, an original, for it’s time, plot line and solid acting by everyone except Katherine Walker (more on that later). The film is well paced, at times it tries to take off in an ‘action film’ direction and it never quite works but it doesn’t kill it. The cinematographer chose to shoot the film with a slightly washed out look and dream-like look. Not sure it goes with the tone. A grittier look would have been better suited. But the look doesn’t detract too much because a lot of cinematographers were using this look for in the 80’s so one can chalk it up to a product of it’s time.
The music was surprisingly not much to write home about. Having two composers, known for such great scores as Phantasm 2, From Beyond and ReAnimator, I expected much more. Apparently Renny Harlin was using James Horner’s Aliens as a temp score and its influence creeps through. Horner’s score is fitting of a space thriller but not so much a prison flick.
I was also, and I touched on it earlier, surprised by Katherine Walker’s pathetic performance in Prison. Especially considering how great of a job she did on Dust Devil. Her line delivery comes across like she’s reading off a teleprompter at times. Stiff, robotic mixed in with very inappropriate reactions. There is a scene where she’s working in a room and everything around her comes to life-Maximum Overdrive style and she’s like ‘whatever’ about it. Not the kind of reaction anyone would have I guarantee it. Her performance doesn’t mar the film too much, mainly due to everyone else’s better performances- especially Lane Smith’s who plays the formidable a-hole; Warden Sharpe.
There is also a scene, early in the film, where we are introduced to Viggo’s character; Burke. I really liked how it was done because there is no emphasis on this as being the main protagonist to follow like it could’ve been. I’ll explain. A convoy of prison busses pull up and park in the middle of a field. Camera cuts to a tight shot of one of the busses being unloaded. One automatic assumes some guys will come out, we’ll see Viggo, and camera will follow him, forcing the emphasis on his character. Instead a few guys get out, then Viggo. Camera does not cut away to track him. A few more guys follow him and then camera cuts away to a few more shots before we see him again, now lined up, flanked by a few other inmates so he’s one in the crowd and, thru his charisma and demeanor he earns the emphasis. It’s such a subtle scene yet I found this most impressive and kudos to Renny if that was his idea or the editors.
Speaking of editing, it’s done so quite effectively but, again, sometimes it feels like it’s trying to be a Die Hard 2 or a Cliffhanger and it’s not. I know these films came after but you can tell when the filmmaker is antsy for action. A better-albeit different prison film that came out that same year was John Hillcoat’s Ghosts of the Civil Dead. While I enjoyed Prison, I could only imagine how much better it could’ve been in John Hillcoat’s hands, or in David Cronenberg’s. But I don’t want to take credit away from Renny. It was his best film, in my humble opinion. And one of the better prison films out there.
In a nutshell, there are flaws in just about every department in this film but none are strong enough to ruin the experience. If you like films set in prisons you’ll get a kick out of this one. If you’re looking more for suspense you won’t find much under the covers here, but what you find may be enough to tide you over. This is no Session 9 but it’s a lot fun, in the end, to watch and for Renny Harlin, it was an early win in a career of near disasters, in my opinion. Give it a chance.