Release Date(s)1988 (February 19, 2013)
Studio(s)MGM (Shout!/Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: C+
- Extras Grade: A-
Renny Harlin’s Prison, like a lot of titles that Scream Factory has been releasing lately, is another one of those obscure films that didn’t find an audience immediately when it was released. But because of the word-of-mouth on the film and the constant bootlegging, the film managed to snag a small base of fans.
Outside of franchise sequels, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Prison is possibly Renny Harlin’s best film. The thing about his work is that it’s, sorry to say, pretty dumb action schlock, and mostly forgettable a lot of the time. Don’t get me wrong though. He’s a talented director, has a keen visual sense, and directs the hell out his movies, but the story details are always hazy and performances don’t feel all that genuine. His movies are fun, which is the best way to describe them, but they aren’t much more beyond that. For example, I wouldn’t call The Long Kiss Goodnight or Cutthroat Island masterpieces, but they’re well-made action extravaganzas. Using that comparison, I’d say that Prison is a little more than just fun and tries to do something a bit more story and character-driven. It has a strong cast, including an early leading role by Viggo Mortenson, a pretty well-laid out story, a bevy of impressive visuals and great special effects.
The only thing really holding it back story-wise is unfortunately part of the same fate that befell Alien 3 (which, oddly enough, Harlin was involved with in its development). The film is basically a killer ghost story set in a prison, and we’re meant to relate to or feel sympathy towards the prisoners. There’s an attempt to make you feel bad for them because of how horribly they’re treated by the prison warden, but it’s done in a very obvious way. It’s not like in The Shawshank Redemption, for example, when the warden appears angelic at times but you know that deep down inside that he’s really a monster. The warden in this film, played by Lane Smith, is comically bad, attempting to push the buttons of not just the inmates or his staff, but of the audience as well. It’s pretty blatant and quite often funny. So the film doesn’t stand out as a completely solid narrative. So what? As a genre piece, it looks and feels very unique. And whether or not it’s Renny’s best film is up for grabs, but it could very well be.
As far as the Blu-ray transfer itself goes, it’s very good. It starts out very soft but sharpens up quite a bit afterwards. Grain is pleasantly film-like, colors are as vibrant as they can be given the lack of variety and skin tones are pretty accurate. The image itself is quite stable, but there are some shots that will definitely stand out as questionable to a lot of videophiles upon first viewing. There are quite a few shots that contain vertical lines (splices) on the left and right of the frame. Not a great number of them, but enough for you to notice when they occur. Usually these types of things are removed when upgrading to high definition, but they were left intact here. Outside of that, there aren’t really many defects left in the actual print. Blacks are pretty even and detail is quite abundant, as well. The presentation won’t blow you away with amazing clarity, but outside of the minor defects I mentioned, it looks quite good.
As far as the audio is concerned, you have two options: DTS-HD 5.1 and 2.0. For my money, I’d stick with the original 2.0 track, but if you really want the 5.1 soundtrack, you’re going to have to swallow a bitter pill. It’s not a great track. It starts out pretty strong with some surround capabilities, as well as some low end moments, but it’s the clarity and the evenness that really make it sound poor. Especially some of the dialogue, which sounds far away at times. It’s not totally inaudible, but the worst parts of the soundtrack stand out more than the best parts. The 2.0 track isn’t a perfect solution, but you won’t be wrestling with the lack of envelopment from the 5.1 track. There are also subtitles in English for those who might need them.
The extras include an audio commentary by Renny Harlin, the Hard Time: The Making of Prison documentary, both the U.S. and German theatrical trailers and a poster and still gallery. On the DVD you get the same extras plus the original first-draft screenplay in PDF format and audio in Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0. So yeah, the extras seem kind of short and sweet, but the documentary makes up for it. It’s a nice length and it’s pretty informative, talking to a number of people involved in the making of it (sadly, not Viggo).
Overall, I’d call this a very good release for Prison on Blu-ray. It may not be completely perfect, but it has a strong picture, a good commentary and a nice documentary on the making of the film included. It’s a winner in my book. It’s been lost in obscurity for years, but now people can finally get to see what Renny was trying to do with the film. After all, it did more or less get him the job of directing A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, which was his first big break. So very much recommended.
- Tim Salmons