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John’s Horror Corner: Prison (1987), a positively gory, shocking and bonkers rollercoaster of fun thanks to Renny Harlin!

February 29, 2020

MY CALL: This feels a lot like a Freddy movie (i.e., parts 4-5) in style, execution and choice of death scenes and special effects… and I mean that in a good way. This is really entertaining, boasts a solid cast and features neat kills. MORE MOVIES LIKE Prison: For more vengeful death sentence spirits, all I can think of is Shocker (1989).

The sophomore feature from director Renny Harlin (A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Deep Blue Sea), this low budget horror was actually produced by Charles Band (Parasite, Meridian, Doctor Mordrid, Head of the Family). And much as the early work of Charles Band and later Full Moon Entertainment, this movie’s opening scene (a dream-like sequence) has the dusky appearance of an episode of Tales from the Crypt (1989).

We open with the ominous last walk of a death row inmate to the electric chair, led by prison guard Sharpe (Lane Smith; V, Red Dawn). As his sentence is carried out and the current courses through his body, the special effects team do their very best—offering brief shots of crackling, burning, pulsating skin.

Now (many years later) appointed to serve as the warden of a new prison, Sharpe must re-appropriate a long-abandoned prison shanty to meet penitentiary holding demands. During some cursory renovations near the old execution chamber, the angry restless spirit of an executed inmate is released upon the prison with Freddy Krueger-like powers to manipulate his lair… and he does so with Krueger-like theatric flair as almost every victim’s body literally ‘erupts’ into a room of on-lookers. This movie was terribly written, but was saved by fun-loving shock factor. It’s exciting, cheesy but fun, well-executed, and probably landed him the director’s seat for A Nightmare on Elm Street 4.

Walls and floors are super-heated to blister inmates, melt the rubber soles of their shoes and burn them alive into charred corpses. Pipes and hoses are animated to trap, strangle and impale and inmate who is later dropped through the ceiling of the commissary raining blood and gore down with his mangled corpse. The very bloody barb wire death scene smacks of subsequent deaths in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 (1988) and Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988). It’s quite the show of gore!

As inmates quickly turn up dead, state-appointed Katherine (Chelsea Field; Death Spa, The Dark Half) investigates the strange occurrences at the prison much to the crooked Sharpe’s chagrin. Among the prisoners are Burke (Viggo Mortensen; Leatherface: TCM III, The Prophecy) and Tiny (Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister; The Fifth Element, Wishmaster 2).

In general, I’ve learned I can trust Renny Harlin to entertain me with whatever movie he makes. But still, I remain very pleasantly surprised at how a movie that somehow flew under my radar for decades (I only just heard of this movie last week from an Instagram post) turned out to be such a decent horror flick. This bonkers movie culminates with a throne-like electric chair erupting from the ground with an electro-zombie of vengeance seated atop who then blasts lightning at his offender. None of it really makes any sense, but I don’t care. This is just plain awesome!

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