[Digging Up the Dead] Locked Up With Renny Harlin's 1987 Cult Classic 'Prison'

The horror genre is alive, well, and ever evolving, so it’s impossible to see everything out there. Beyond that, there are wonderful films of yesteryear that people may not have seen either from lack of awareness or lack of time. To that end, I bring you "Digging Up the Dead," where I will be revisiting classic and indie horror films and evaluating if they have stood the test of time or if they are merely an artifact of what was.

Of course, one of the best parts of movie fandom is discussing and debating movies, so feel free to comment whether you agree with my assessments or where you feel I got it wrong. I look forward to, hopefully, exposing you to movies you haven’t seen, or just haven’t seen in years. With that, I will grab my shovel and get to digging!


I’ve had extra time on my hands thanks to the pandemic, so I thought I’d revisit some of the scary movies I remember from my younger years. Given all the streaming services out there, I thought I’d have no problem tracking them down, but to my surprise and disappointment, Prison was nowhere to be found. Thankfully, I was able to snag a copy thanks to a friend, and I was pleasantly surprised with how well this movie has held up.

The second feature length film from Renny Harlin, who would go on to direct Nightmare on Elm Street 4 and Deep Blue Sea, Prison is a 1987 supernatural horror film where the vengeful spirit of an executed inmate terrorizes a decrepit, recently reopened prison. With the typical conflicts between prison staff and inmates, and the vengeful spirit against everyone, this basic premise is perfect for a contained, bloody conflict.

The film grabbed my attention right from the start as the opening sequence is heavy on close-ups and ominous sound design, while lacking in dialogue except for whispered Latin prayers, yet nonetheless this sequence perfectly sets up the film. We witness the execution of a prisoner via electric chair, and a guard who robs him of his crucifix just before he rides the lightning. This cuts to the thieving guard waking up from a dream and getting a phone call, and though we don’t know it quite yet, we’ve just been introduced to the films primary antagonist, warden Sharpe.

The cinematography in Prison is a bit raw, but it is forgivable as it’s clear they are reaching for greater heights than they can always achieve. That being said, when a scene hits, it hits hard. There is a wonderful sequence where possessed barbed wire attacks a guard, and the graphic visuals and special effects make it completely realistic, even when viewed through a modern lens, and I think it was probably this sequence that made Harlin a contender to direct Nightmare on Elm Street 4. Also, there is a terrific reveal when a victim of the spirit comes crashing through a ceiling to the surprise of inmates and guards alike. This is the inciting incident that begins the film’s crescendo, delivering one of the more graphic and unsettling moments of the film while ratcheting up the suspense.

Unfortunately, some of the special effects don’t hold up, and in some cases I don’t think they were all that great at the time, such as a burning body early on in the film. This was a bit surprising given some of the great effects I mentioned earlier, but none of the effects are so bad as to take you out of the moment. Also, for a horror film it has a bit of a slow start, feeling much more like a *surprise* prison movie until you’re about a third of the way in. The start isn’t wasted, as it is used to build character and set the stage, but I think it could have been sped up a bit, though that could just be personal taste.

On the acting side, Vigo Mortensen delivers his first motion picture leading performance as Burke, a car thief who plays by his own rules, even in prison. Burke is quiet and more about actions than words, and Mortensen deftly handles the part, giving him the right amount of reserve and confidence to make Burke believable and likeable. Lane Smith is in his element as warden Sharpe, as his gruff delivery is ideal for an authority figure on a power trip. Chelsea Field plays Katherine, a government worker who is advocating for better prisons for inmates. Chelsea delivers a solid performance, but of the three main characters in the film, hers is the most underdeveloped, so she doesn’t have a ton to work with. A notable supporting performance is delivered by Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister, as his stature and notable voice make him an ideal actor for a prison movie. Lister’s part isn’t big, but he is a scene stealer and he commands attention whenever he’s on screen.

While Prison will not go down in history as one of the great horror films, it deserves more attention than it has received. There are some truly memorable scenes, and if nothing else it’s fun to watch Vigo Mortensen cut his teeth and Lane Smith chew up the scenery. It only had a limited theatrical release, and is regularly out of print in the US, but anyone who is a fan of 1980s horror will almost certainly have fun with this film, so give it a watch if you can get your hands on a copy.