Saturday, November 28, 2009

#74: Prison (Renny Harlin, 1988)

The makers of Prison came up with a solid idea. Let's combine the most entertaining cliches of the prison movie with the most entertaining cliches of the possessed/haunted house movie. Then let's set it in Wyoming and get some inexperienced pretty boy from Finland to direct it. As it turns out, these were the right decisions to make. Prison is a highly entertaining piece of excellent trash. I enjoyed the hell out of it, and I think it's time to release it on DVD.

Prison opens with the execution of a prisoner in the Wyoming state pen in the 1950s before jumping to the present day. The old, outdated prison was closed shortly thereafter, but a governor running a get-tough-on-crime reelection campaign and a budget shortfall halting plans on a state-of-the-art prison necessitate its reopening. The old warden gets an early-morning call offering a transfer back to his old prison, and he takes it. The warden, played by the insanely over-the-top bug-eyed character actor Lane Smith (who unfortunately died of Lou Gehrig's disease in 2005), is having some intense dreams and is a little closer to the edge than city officials suspect. Soon, busloads of prisoners arrive, including our hero, a car thief with a heart of gold played by a young Viggo Mortensen. Viggo's rocking a Luke Perry by way of James Dean late-1980s rockabilly 90210 pompadour, so you know he's soulful, troubled, and independent. He soon befriends his wise, aging black cellmate with a secret, who would be played by Morgan Freeman if this were a Hollywood movie, and a wisecracking New York Italian kid nicknamed Lasagna, who puts up a poster of Rambo in his cell. Lasagna's cellmate is played by occasional professional wrestler Tiny Lister, aka Zeus from the horrible Hulk Hogan movie No Holds Barred. He also has a heart of gold, despite his large, tough, black exterior. (This movie contains four substantial African-American roles, each one hitting a different mildly racist Hollywood stereotype. The other two are the voodoo priest and the high-voiced, shaking, terrified, "yes-massa" Negro, possibly on loan from the 1930s. Guess which one dies first?) We get a lot of prison politicking, clique formation, threats, menace, and escape planning. I enjoy these prison-movie cliches when done well, and Prison satisfies in this department.

Prison also gets the horror elements right. Remember that 1950s execution? Well, that guy's evil spirit is now haunting the prison, and the evil spirit likes to kick out the jams, motherfucker. He doesn't care whether you're a prisoner, a guard, an official, or a warden. He wants to destroy. We get three or four pretty spectacular gore set-pieces with good, old-fashioned pre-CGI effects. And we get lots of Lane Smith, flipping the fuck out, his eyes nearly leaving his head. Man, that guy could do an excellent freak-out. Viggo is compelling as ever, though he's just a little too handsome as a young man. I prefer the character and age in his face now. He's turned into a fascinating actor. The rest of the cast is excellent, too. Harlin populates the prison with a lot of solid character actors and actual ex-cons from the Wyoming prison system. Harlin's and the producers' decision to shoot in an actual abandoned prison makes a big difference in mood, atmosphere, all that shit.

Prison was Harlin's second feature in what has become a long, mostly financially successful career. To be honest, he's a Hollywood hack who makes silly entertainments, but some of those silly entertainments are a lot of fun, and he stays out of the way of his actors and story, unlike that idiot Michael Bay, whose approach to editing and visual space would be almost avant-garde if you could trace any thought or feeling to it. Harlin followed Prison with A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Die Hard 2, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Cliffhanger, Cutthroat Island, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Deep Blue Sea. His most recent movie was the John Cena vehicle 12 Rounds. He was once married to Geena Davis. He also used to have a ridiculous head of hair worn in the style of such 1980s lite-metal frontmen as White Lion's Mike Tramp. Evidence here. If you can get past the film's racism, which I believe comes from a place of ignorance and misguided intentions rather than maliciousness or mean-spiritedness, you'll find an enjoyable haunted prison movie with solid performances and memorable horror setpieces. I don't think Harlin will ever top Prison.

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