PRISON Blu-ray Review: Renny Harlin’s American Debut Gets A Lavish Home Release

PRISON was never even released on DVD, but now it's got a beautiful Blu release - and BC reviews it for us.

Just a couple months shy of the 25th anniversary of its botched theatrical release, Shout Factory (via their Scream Factory line) has seen fit to finally release Renny Harlin's American debut Prison on a proper home video format. It bypassed DVD entirely in Region 1, forcing us to deal with low-grade imports if we wanted to experience this underrated little gem on anything but the original VHS release, so it's kind of awesome that Shout has made up for it with a lavish Blu-ray; it's sort of like if your dad never taught you how to ride a bike but made up for it by giving you a car.

What makes Prison work as well as it does is that it's a prison movie first, horror movie second. Sure, there's a ghost of a wrongly executed con looking to get revenge on the warden who screwed him over, but that is just one of many subplots at play here. Take out those scenes and you're left with a traditional prison drama - the warden's an asshole, the conditions are rough, guys get tossed in the hole for no reason, a kindhearted hero looks out for the other prisoners... there's even a riot and an escape attempt near the end. You get the impression that the vengeful Forsythe gets to hang back and let some of his targets just get killed on their own without his awesome ghost powers.

Luckily, he still finds plenty to do, allowing Harlin's imagination to run wild - it's pretty easy to see how he got the Nightmare on Elm St 4 gig out of this. One prisoner is assaulted by pipes that crowd/engulf him, one is melted when his solitary confinement cell is turned into an oven, and another is shredded with "living" barbed wire - all of these would feel at home in a Nightmare sequel of the era, and the lack of a physical villain until the very last sequence makes it feel like a predecessor to the Final Destination films as well. Forsythe's lone appearance is kind of weird and out of nowhere - he just springs up from the ground (still in the electric chair!) and snarls and such before the final, quick battle with the hardass warden. I think it might have been better if you never saw him at all, but at least the makeup is solid, and Kane Hodder apparently put live worms in his mouth for the scene (as he was a rotting corpse from the ground, it makes sense that he'd have such things in/around his person), so that's cool. And needless to say, all of this is practical work on a very small budget, so this is a great showcase for the largely bygone era of indie horror productions still managing to do things the right way.

It's also got a pretty impressive cast, which isn't something you can say about a lot of low budget horror films from the '80s. In addition to the great Lane Smith as the warden, you can enjoy Viggo Mortensen (in his first lead role) as the heroic prisoner that may have a connection to Forsythe (one the movie doesn't spell out for you, oddly enough) and Chelsea Field as the film's only female character, who is charged with ensuring prison conditions are safe and butts heads with the warden (who denies visitation privileges for ALL prisoners for six months after ONE of them causes a problem). Some familiar character actors also pop up among the prisoners, like Tommy "Tiny" Lister as a surprisingly good-natured guy sharing a cell with Viggo's buddy, Tom Everett (who'd go on to appear with Viggo in Leatherface) as the guy with the escape plan, and Larry "Flash" Jenkins (Gummy!) as the first one to feel Forsythe's wrath. And if you're a Halloween fan, you can appreciate that Mickey Yablans - the kid who bullied Tommy Doyle - has grown up and is a "bitch" for one of the bigger, thug-like prisoners. On that note, that character and many of the extras were played by actual prisoners, as the Wyoming prison where it was shot was still operational, giving the film an extra bit of atmosphere and realism that has been unmatched by any other horror film set in a penitentiary.

The locale is one of the main talking points on the disc's retrospective documentary, titled "Hard Time." In the 37 minute piece, Harlin, Everett, producers Charles Band and Irwin Yablans (who produced Halloween - Mickey is his son), screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner and a few others all discuss their memories making the film in typical retrospective fashion. There are some funny anecdotes, a bit of good-natured "dirt" (Lane Smith refused to take off his toupee for the role!), lots of praise for the bigger stars who aren't around to join them (guess Viggo had better things to do), etc. It's a fine piece, though a bit by the numbers - I would have liked more time spent on the film's unfortunate box office fate (it was dumped in only a few theaters; New World inexplicably released the film on the same day they put out Dead Heat on over 1000 screens, and these would prove to be among their last theatrical releases), not to mention an explanation of why it never came out on DVD in the first place. Then there are some photo galleries and a pair of trailers (one in German!), along with a nice surprise: the original draft of the script (titled "Horror In The Big House") that is much different than the final version. Forsythe has more of a slasher presence, and it includes a never filmed scene where he kills a guy by pulling him into a scalding hot bowl of chili (!) which is discussed (mocked) on the retrospective.

The only other extra is Harlin's commentary, which starts off fine but gets more and more silent as it goes. I'm not sure if he just got caught up watching the movie or ran out of things to say, but by the hour mark he will sometimes go two to three minutes without talking. When he does talk it's a fine listen; he talks about his insecurities directing a production of this magnitude for the first time, storyboarding the entire thing himself because they couldn't afford an artist (or a second unit director), and other nuts and bolts stuff that should interest those who would turn on a director's commentary in the first place. He's also admirably self-deprecating about himself and his other movies (when discussing a particular dated trend in action/horror filmmaking, he admits he's guilty of it like everyone else), so it can be pretty fun as well - just don't be surprised when you forget someone's supposed to be talking. Then again, audio issues abound on the disc; while the image is pretty terrific (as are all of these Scream factory releases), the dialogue on the 5.1 track is very low - I had to turn up my receiver about 10 more levels than usual to hear it and it was still pretty soft. The 2.0 is louder, but you'll still have to fiddle with your volume when it switches from a quiet scene to a horror one (and then again when it's over). I thought maybe it was my Blu-ray disc, but the same problem was present on the DVD (yup, it's a combo so even if you don't have Blu-ray yet you can pick up this release and get all the same bonus features for standard def - score!), so it was either a problem with remastering or a poorly recorded movie in the first place.

Harlin has recently finished shooting a found footage film, so it's great to see that he still likes to alternate between action and horror stuff, even if he's never really topped his first genre offering in my opinion (Deep Blue Sea comes close, however). It's a solid, exciting film that functions as a horror flick as well as a prison drama, and despite the audio hiccups, Shout has put together a pretty nice high-def package to make up for its long overdue presence in your collection.