Dir. Renny Harlin
Written by Irwin Yablans, C. Courtney Joyner
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Chelsea Fields, Lane Smith, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Ivan Kane, Tommy “Tiny” Lister
Well, can’t blame me for trying. Renny Harlin, one year before he directed the delightful NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4, directing Viggo Mortensen (in his first starring role!) in a haunted prison movie? Sign me the fuck up. In fact, forget the whole “can’t blame me for trying” thing; shame, shame on me for allowing even a day's time when I was aware of this movie but hadn’t yet watched it. And hey, can’t blame Renny for trying, either; he’s obviously working hard here, filling his first American movie* with nice lighting, a good cast, a couple funny bits. There’s stuff to like. But not much, not enough. And obviously not as much as there should be, based on the parts assembled here.
There’s definitely a distinct whiff of effort. The opening sequence of a guy getting executed is pretty intense, mostly thanks to Harlin’s exaggerated camerawork and a nicely evil set design. One guy later tries to escape, only to find the prison’s pipe system turns against him and brutally perforates his body before dumping the bloody mess into, appropriately, I guess, the mess hall. There’s voodoo, lots of implied prison rape (though no shower scenes, weirdly), fancy lighting shots, a guy climbs up a barbed wire rope with his bare hands, and it does have one phenomenally inspired kill which involves a chair, barbed wire, a shotgun, electricity, and two separate prison floors. And Kane Hodder shows up in the finale with that delightful cheesy 80’s animated lighting every movie made between 1979 and 1994 had. But unfortunately nothing here is able to overcome the anemic storyline, which wanders around a number of pointless tangents which lead to nothing interesting before finally settling down for the most rote possible outcome, unpredictable only in that it bafflingly has nothing whatsoever to do with any of the ostensible main characters.
|Viggo and Lasagna, contemplating the different directions their careers will go.|
Seriously, it’s weird, because Viggo is playing this new prisoner who looks and sounds exactly like a notorious killer who was executed in this very prison under dubious circumstances years ago (and in fact, Viggo plays that role too). You got to assume he’s a reincarnation or a son or something, and it seems like his presence must be the catalyst for all this weird stuff happening. But nope, I guess not, the fact that he looks exactly like this other dude is never addressed. In fact, he has fuck all to do in the entire movie, he just sort of stands around glowering most of the time and contributes exactly nothing to the plot (of course, he shouldn’t complain. Chelsea Fields has even less to do, she’s not even on premise for most of the movie, although at one point her home computer blows up for no reason, so that’s fun). The two people who actually have anything to do with the narrative are both old guys, a prison inmate and the asshole warden (surprise!) but the movie really wants to be about everyone else, from the Stallone-worshiping Travolta-wannabe Italian guy (I swear to you I’m serious, his name is “Lasagna.” Look it up if you don’t believe me.) to the rapey bearded guy (“Rhino,” as far as I can tell not related to the Spider-Man character recently played by Paul Giamatti) to the mild-mannered giant (“Tiny,” played by Tommy Lister**). None of these people have any relevance to the meager plot, nor are they even used as cannon fodder, nor, honestly, does anything interesting or dramatic come of them. They’re just there, taking up time. OK, Lister does have a pretty good death scene, although weirdly it’s not related to the whole haunted prison thing.
|Still a less horrifying prison movie than INTO THE ABYSS.|
Harlin’s infectious enthusiasm for chaos and spectacle means that this one isn’t a total wash; at least he knew to throw in an exploding computer for no reason. But a lot of this one wants to be some kind of atmospheric suspense ghost story, which isn’t really Harlin’s strong suit and anyway is a lost cause from the start because the story is so dull. At 102 minutes, the whammies are far too scant to keep any energy going, and gradually the whole thing sort of peters out. Little surprise that it got only a limited release and promptly vanished from the face of the Earth. Weird, since writers Irwin Yablans (producer of HALOWEEN and TOURIST TRAP) and C. Courtney Joyner (writer of FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM) surely knew their way around a decent horror movie, and of course Harlin would go on to make some damn entertaining ones (including another one that same year, and as recently as last year). But I guess this just shows you can’t simply assemble a bunch of fun elements and expect to have a movie. You also got to figure out how to make it work.
On the other hand, there’s a moment when some asshole steals Viggo’s football, so he goes up to him and grabs his nuts and says “You let go of my ball, and I’ll let go of yours.” Now that’s a whammy. The movie as a whole needed a couple more of those, but at least they’ll be able to put that scene in Viggo’s Hollywood retrospective someday.
*And only second film overall, after his appropriately named Finnish debut BORN AMERICAN.
**What the fuck, I’m looking at his filmography right now, and he’s gonna be in HUMAN CENTIPEDE PART III?! With his DARK KNIGHT co-star Eric Roberts? And it’s a prison movie? What is happening to the world?