Some years ago, at this prison, there was an incident where an innocent man went to the electric chair, and that's something the guard in charge, Sharpe (Lane Smith) has found his conscience struggling with ever since, to the extent that he still has nightmares about it. Yet now he is going to be warden of that self same prison, which has lain unpopulated for quite a while. He is having trouble from the official, Katherine Walker (Chelsea Field), overseeing the project to ensure the prisoners are treated fairly - but something has other ideas...
That's something, not someone, as the idea of a killer prison was what fuelled the mayhem in this, Renny Harlin's first American feature, which set him on the path to directing a Nightmare on Elm Street sequel, a bunch of not bad action movies, and eventually the rather unfair reputation of being one of the worst directors in the world. Anyone dredging up this almost forgotten chiller from his past would see that while he may have gone off the boil in his later works, there was a time when he could conjure up a little movie magic for which in theory could have been pretty silly stuff.
Well, Prison was a pretty silly film, but crucially you did not consider that much when you were watching it for the atmosphere brought about here was appropriately sombre. Essentially it was a reheating of all the old prison movie clichés given a supernatural twist, and of course it's not the actual building that's doing the murders but the spirit of the executed inmate who is out for revenge, although you'd be forgiven for not picking up on that right away, as the storytelling properties were rather murky. But what we do know is that one of those new jailbirds is actually an OK guy, and he's Burke (Viggo Mortensen).
We can tell this because he is stoic but goodhearted, and doesn't take any bullshit from the other, more menacing prisoners who wish to rule the roost. Also, it's he who unleashes the force concealed within the walls, for when Sharpe orders the wall to the execution chamber knocked through a bright light shoots out of the hole he creates, and no sooner has that happened than a couple of men in solitary find their metal cells a little too hot to handle - literally, as the walls and floor heat up to burn them alive. Burke again proves his mettle by saving one of them (the other is not so lucky), but this incident paves the way for some very odd setpieces.
Or very daft setpieces, depending on your point of view, but all credit to Harlin and his cast, they took this all with the proper gravity so that, for example, scenes where a would-be escapee is impaled on pipes as he struggles through a confined space, or a guard is wrapped up in barbed wire then propelled through the ceiling into the warden's office, come across as grim rather than something more likely to make you laugh. The notion that those in charge have lost control is an element common to prison movies, not only the horror variations, and that was well to the fore in this example so we can see practically from the start that Sharpe will lose his tenuous hold over the institution. The implication that Burke may have an otherwordly aspect is rather undernourished, and fails to make much impact on the rest of this which may build to the expected riot, but this has been interestingly characterised, and for what it was did surprisingly well. Music by Richard Band (this was an Empire production) and Christopher L. Stone.