(Originally posted on 12/2/03)
As readers of this site will undoubtedly come to learn, I have an abiding fascination/obsession with horror films, good or bad. Case in point: this weekend's Saturday night rental, Prison, a 1988 junk-a-thon directed by Renny Harlin (pre-Die Hard II, post-Nightmare on Elm St. IV: The Dream Master). Starring Viggo Mortensen as a convict with a thing for James Dean/Montgomery Clift hairstyles, the film is a low-budget, fright-free laugher about a ghost terrorizing a -- you guessed it! -- prison. A mean ol' warden named Sharpe (Lane Smith) executed an innocent man and then covered it up thirty years ago; now, he's been assigned to oversee the very prison (not used since the '50s) in which the crime was committed. There's a debate early on over whether prisons' objectives should be punitive or reformative, and the film's plot certainly can be seen as an anti-capital punishment screed. But please, don't go looking to Prison for intellectual stimulation, since it is, at heart, nothing more than an '80s horror film in which staging gruesome deaths becomes a lame substitute for creating tension and eeriness. A bunch of peripheral characters (including Tom "Tiny" Lister in his WWF Zeus days) waste time developing Calista Flockhart-thin subplots, and Viggo does a bit of pre-Lord of the Rings brooding with his shirt off. But the main problem is the evil spirit itself, which amounts to little more than glowing blue light and, on a few special occasions, glowing blue lightening bolts. Watching Mortensen and Smith -- who, with his mouth perpetually open in a look of constipated anger and shock, seems to be in a fly-eating contest -- react to this low-budget villain is not only embarrassing, but a little sad as well. Still, Prison does provide a few unintentionally funny moments along the way, such as every single second the idiotic Italian inmate Lasagna (I kid you not, that's the character's name) appears on screen and talks about his homoerotic affection for Rambo.