The High Street Prison has been left abandoned for many years, ever since there was a devastating riot there which saw the warden murdered by the inmates. But for psychiatrist Dr Langer (James Coco) it's an opportunity to do good work with regard to some troubled prisoners, so he has arranged for eight of them to attend the partially reopened facility where they will be locked up as they would have been in their accustomed jails of origin, but also undergo a series of tests and sessions designed to get to grips with their problems. To that end, Langer has recruited a young researcher, Lisa Titus (Trini Alvarado), to assist, and the former assistant warden, Dwyer (Paul Benedict) to take care of security...
As has been noted before, there was a small spate of electric chair and prison movies, often horror-themed, in the late eighties such as the self-explanatory Prison or the oddball thriller Guilty as Charged, but The Chair had the advantage of getting in on the act first. Poor distribution put paid to its hopes of making a splash, yet there was something else hampering its impact, which was that it really wasn't very good, with goofy sequences alternating with outright cruelty visited upon the more decent characters, though even that was not going to satisfy the seasoned shocker fan (hey, Shocker was another electric chair flick) who wanted a pacey, effects-packed thrill ride.
Director Waldemar Korzeniowsky, an erstwhile maker of industrial films here with his sole attempt at a narrative feature, didn't quite seem to have a strong enough idea of what he wanted to do, so there were parts of this (penned by his then-wife) which came across as an improving and understanding examination of the prison system, whereas other bits, often with the soon to be deceased James Coco for whom this was one of his last roles, leaned more on the humour, not that it was very funny. Then every so often there would be electrical bolts superimposed over the action to denote the presence of the ghost of the murdered warden, which caused one handyman character to, er, disappear, leaving his helmet behind.
That's gotta hurt, but it wasn't very graphic, whereas the death of one of the guards (familiar heavy Mike Starr) entertained a more gory method with a big closeup of a severed arm. That was about it for the red stuff until right at the end when the inevitable restaging of the riot took place, only with far fewer inmates, though we were offered a flashback to see what Dwyer actually did that fateful night. He has in the meantime been acting ever more erratically, though considering everyone here behaves a few sandwiches short of a picnic it's perhaps not surprising that a trained shrink has no idea that someone so close to him is going around the bend. Or maybe the opposite of that, as the doctor barely registers the danger he has put everyone in.
Opening with a title sequence accompanied by a rendition of the old standard The Folks Who Live On the Hill for some bizarre reason, The Chair has been confounding viewers willing to give it a try on home video for some years now. It's not all that suspenseful as a horror, not particularly funny as a comedy, and the spectacle is left to the aforementioned glows and zaps, though Dwyer does get to converse with a stop motion animated eyeball in a lightbulb every so often just to indicate he is as bonkers as the inmates, a state of affairs prompted by his guilt at leaving the previous warden to get help, then hiding when the mayhem got out of hand, though even that doesn't tell us how he was supposed to stand up against a whole prison full of bloodthirsty jailbirds dragging their overseer to his doom in the electric chair. Two cast members might elicit interest now: Trini Alvarado, whose never quite front rank stardom left her with a cult following, and as a prisoner Stephen Geoffreys, if you don't know the big deal about him you haven't been on movie websites long enough. Synth music by Edward Reyes.