Because it wasn't part of a governor's reelection platform and thus of no real priority to him, plans to build a new, 50 million dollar prison facility are put on the back burner. Instead, the state government decides to re-open the former Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins; a derelict prison that's been closed down since 1968. Hardened, cold-blooded “dinosaur” prison warden Ethan Sharpe (Lane Smith), a man haunted by memories of overseeing executions in his previous job, is hired to both serve as a warden and whip the place (now called Creedmore Prison) into shape. Put in charge of assisting Sharpe on the project is Katherine Walker (Chelsea Field), a humane state prison board representative who's mostly concerned about the welfare of the prisoners and the unsafe conditions there. Regardless, three-hundred prisoners are shipped to Creedmore and they're all expected to do the back-breaking labor required to whip their future home into shape. As soon as they arrive, trouble-maker Rabbit (Tom Everett) decides to take an opportunity of chaos to steal a bus and attempts to escape, which only ends up landing him and an innocent guy who just happened to be on the bus at the same time in the prison's flooded “hole” and mail and visiting privileges suspended for six months for all the others. Yeah, Warden Sharpe means business.
We spend a little time getting to know some of the inmates, like bearded, bald cell block bully Rhino (Stephen E. Little), his young, scared cellmate Brian (Mickey Yablans, son of the producer), who ends up virtually becoming Rhino's slave, Rambo-worshipping Italian-American “guido” Joseph Lazaro aka Lasagna (Ivan Kane), big, buff Tiny (Tommy Lister Jr.), deeply-religious Sandor (André De Shields) and Burton Cresus (Lincoln Kilpatrick), an elderly lifer who's been bounced around different state prisons for decades and at this late stage in the game is reduced to numbing himself by drinking cups of Lysol. The main focus however is on Burke (Viggo Mortensen), a laid back, soft-spoken car thief and master lock-picker who's so good at what he does he's developed a sort-of celebrity in the criminal world. As the men get to work, Burke and Sandor are taken down into the basement with pick axes and asked to break through a wall sealing up a former execution chamber. Once they break through, an evil supernatural force is unleashed, which creates blaringly bright lights, flashes of electricity and even windows to burst. Soon after, people begin dying in mysterious, gruesome ways.
After one inmate gets roasted alive inside his cell, which is blamed on a gas main explosion, Katherine prepares an accident report but it's intercepted by Sharpe and his chief guard / right hand man Carl (Arlen Dean Snyder) and never even leaves Sharpe's desk. Another inmate who tries to escape is killed by animated wires and steel poles and, later, crashes through the ceiling of the dining hall. Blaming the prisoners for the two mysterious deaths, Sharpe decides to haul them all out of their cells and punish them by burning their mattresses and making them stand around outside in their underwear all night. By the time the third victim surfaces there's certainly no denying that none of the prisoners are responsible, especially after the barbed-wire wrapped body flies up through a ceiling directly into Sharpe's office while he's there and the prisoners are all outside. But even that doesn't have Sharpe whistling another tune as he's so stubborn and in denial about something he can't face the truth. Instead, he calls for a lock down and handcuffs everyone to their beds.
Not content with being just another ordinary haunted house / asylum / prison / spooky abandoned place movie, this eventually turns into a ghostly revenge film with an unexpected twist revealed toward the end that implicates several characters in wrongdoing years earlier. The vengeful spirit also decides to venture beyond the prison walls to visit Katherine and give her clues as to who he is and what he wants to accomplish. An element of reincarnation is also at play, but it's not really followed-through with.
Despite some minor issues with the plot, this is still a finely-crafted and entertaining film with very good special effects work and nicely-defined characters, credible dialogue and an underlying message about the many pitfalls of this country's prison system; all courtesy of writer C. Courtney Joyner. Its best two attributes, however, are the overall atmosphere and the visuals. This benefits greatly from on-location shooting in a real closed-down prison. It's also surprisingly stylish thanks to imaginative and atmospheric lighting designs and Mac Ahlberg's surprisingly lush photography. Setting the action within the dark, grimy, claustrophobic confines of the prison and then introducing the supernatural menace using floods of bright blue and white light often leads to striking results. I don't think I've ever seen a movie with this much prominent blue on display. Blue is virtually everywhere: on the clothes, on the walls, reflected in the water, in the air, in pretty much in all of the shots... There's so much blue I almost expected some other famous blue beings to pop out of the woodwork.
The performances are generally good and the actors are mostly believable in their roles, with perhaps a few exceptions. Typically a pretty dependable character actor, Smith goes almost comically over-the-top toward the end and it's also pretty obvious this was future star Viggo's first lead role. Though Mortensen is extremely good-looking and has some of that natural James Dean-style charisma, he seems somewhat miscast here and sort of just mumbles his way through his part. At one point, his cellmate tells him he has “the face of a lifer” and all I could do was laugh and think, "Screw jacking cars! If I had that face I'd be knocking on every modeling / casting agency door in Hollywood.” Supposedly, many of the featured extras cast here as prisoners actually were prisoners and armed guards had to be present on the set at all times. Not only that, but Little was a prisoner himself doing time for manslaughter when he was drafted to play his prominent supporting part here.
Harlin, born in Finland as Lauri Harjola, had a rocky start to his career upon emigrating to the U.S. and apparently was living in his car when he landed this job through producer friend Irwin Yablans. Though Prison wasn't a box office hit or anything (it was made for Charles Band's production company Empire Pictures right before it went under), it received fairly positive notices and helped Harlin secure a career-altering gig directing the extremely successful fourth entry in the Nightmare on Elm Street series the following year. After “The Dream Master” became the highest-grossing entry in the original New Line series and #19 box office draw of its year, Harlin was assigned numerous big budget action movies to direct. These were either successful, as was the case with Die Hard 2 (1990) and Cliffhanger (1993), or monumental flops, like Cutthroat Island (1995), which grossed just 10 million dollars on a 100 million budget and became the Guinness world record holder for “The Biggest Box Office Flop of All Time.” Like most of the director's later films, Harlin's focus on big action set-pieces and special effects was evident even at this early stage of his career.
Others who worked on the film include Kane Hodder (who was the stuntman and appears in a few small roles) and John Carl Buechler (makeup effects supervisor). In 1988, Prison was given a limited, 42 theater showing here in the U.S. and grossed around 350,000 dollars on a 4 million production budget. (The 4 million figure is provided by Box Office Mojo, though I have also seen it listed as being as small as 1.3 million). It was also shown in theaters in Japan and a few other countries in Europe but, just like many other films from the time, would do most of its business on home video (New World was the initial VHS distributor). In 2011, a soundtrack album from Richard Band and Christopher L. Stone was released on the Intrada label. In 2013, Shout! Factory subsidiary Scream Factory put out a Blu-ray and DVD, which comes with a commentary track from Harlin.