The opening scene of inmate Charlie Forsythe’s slow walk to the electric chair is shot in first person perspective. The viewer looks through Charlie’s eyes as he stares down guard Ethan Sharpe before the hood is placed over his eyes and the POV switches to third person. That silent exchange between Charlie and Ethan is important; they both know Charlie is innocent of the crime that sentenced him to death. Ethan shows no remorse during the execution.
Years later, long after Creedmore Prison ceased to exist as a functioning prison, the board opens it back up again and places Ethan Sharpe in charge as the warden. As the prison’s conditions have deteriorated over the years of non-use, the board sends Katherine Walker (played by Chelsea Field) to oversee the cleanup process. It doesn’t take long for before the spirit of Charlie Forsythe is released and his quest for vengeance against the warden endangers anyone in his path.
People don’t end up incarcerated without having committed a crime, so setting a killer loose among them seems a risky move. If the audience doesn’t care about the victims, then there are no stakes and therefore no tension. This is bypassed by focusing on the prison story primarily, with the supernatural aspect almost seemingly relegated to the background while the mystery and tension simmers on low. The inmates, led by Viggo Mortensen in his first film lead role as Burke, build camaraderie amongst the oppression of the guards and the bizarre supernatural occurrences. The prisoners look out for each other and develop bonds between them, which goes a long way in erasing any prejudice against them based on the film’s setting. Of course, the warden’s corruption and ruthlessness also contributes to the audience’s goodwill toward the inmates. Also amazing, the only female character in the film doesn’t exist solely as a romantic interest for Burke.
Expect to find stereotypes found in all prison movies; solitary confinement, escape attempts, corruption, and prison rape lulls the viewer into forgetting they’re watching a horror film at all. But that’s precisely when the ghost makes his presence known. Charlie Forysthe’s victims die in the most excruciating and creative ways. The slow and bloody deaths are handled in the best way that only the 80s seemed capable of delivering with their practical effects. The build toward the finale culminates in another first, stunt coordinator Kane Hodder’s first appearance on screen in full on makeup as the physical embodiment of Charlie Forsythe’s restless spirit. Though the role was minor, it was directly responsible for landing him the iconic role of Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood. Those few moments made a large impact, live night crawlers falling from his mouth and all.
To capture an authentic feel, Prison was filmed at the abandoned Wyoming State Prison. The prison didn’t have an electric chair, so the crew built one into the actual gas chamber. So that opening scene feels a bit more real. Keeping with the theme of authenticity, prisoners from nearby prisons were used as extras in the background so armed guards were on site during the filming.
If the film has a flaw, it’s in the mystery’s reveal. For all of the time spent on giving subtle hints and layering in clues, one of the major questions is answered with ambiguity. Charlie Forsythe is discovered to have a connection with another character, yet that’s left open for the audience to interpret. Writer Irwin Yablans (better known as the executive producer of Halloween) wrote out an explanation, but for whatever reason it was cut.
In addition to writing Prison, Irwin Yablans also brought Renny Harlin over from Finland and gave him his first job directing an American film. His work on this film lead to Renny Harlin getting tapped to direct A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master that same year. So this well done film served as a launching pad for multiple people.
With an impressive cast and crew of talent, it’s surprising that this underrated gem has gone mostly unnoticed. Spectacular kills, great special effects, characters worth rooting for, and an engaging mystery all make this a must see film for any horror fan. Or even fans of the prison films, as the Prison perfectly balances its components. Already boasting a long list of firsts, Prison can also boast being the first horror film set in prison. It’s also the best.