Prison (1987) Retrospective

Colin Childress (Jeffrey Combs), a highly successful comic book artist who gains inspiration from a mystical book of horrific drawings, inadvertently summons an evil spirit into his basement studio. Decades later, his house has become a small art institute run by the stern Mrs. Briggs (Yvonne De Carlo). One night, comely student Whitney Taylor (Debrah Farentino) goes rooting around the sealed boxes in the cellar and releases the supernatural forces trapped there.


PRISON is the first of a multi-picture deal between Irwin Yablans, the producer who made HALLOWEEN, and Charles Band’s Empire Entertainment. Yablans produced the film, and Band served as executive producer. The script by C. Courtney Joyner was from a story by Yablans himself. “It’s so hard to come up with new concepts for suspense-horror thrillers,” said Yablans. “It’s like HALLOWEEN: the most horrifying night of the year had never been touched for a horror movie; and, extending the concept, the most horrific institution in the world has never been handled in a horror movie.”

Producer Irwin Yablans, who is also credited with Prison’s original story, “A lot of care and a bit more money was put into it. It’s a departure from the kind of movies they were doing at Empire; Empire was pretty much into the amazing, supernatural, futuristic exploitation fare, and this is a bit more naturalistic. We actually used the old Wyoming State Penitentiary, so it has a large, large scale to it, a size that heretofore has not been done at Empire. We have many people in it and a very credible, very well equipped collection of actors who give very strong performances.”


“The picture is probably more accessible in a commercial sense than anything Empire has ever done,” adds scripter Courtney Joyner. “Most Empire pictures start with a guy in a rubber suit who crawls out of an egg and goes around murdering naked teenagers or something. We haven’t taken that approach. Irwin’s idea was to base the thing in reality and always have reality the overwhelming element. So it’s much closer to Poltergeist or The Haunting than it is to say, Zone Troopers. Also absent from the movie, Joyner points out, is the dark humor that typifies much Empire product. “The humor in Prison comes from the attitudes of the characters in the film rather than from, say, the outrageousness of Re-Animator,” he explains, “which makes it quite different in its tone.

Obviously, [Empire head] Charlie Band has been very successful with that approach. But I tried to make Prison function as a legitimate penitentiary movie, which makes it a little different. To me, that was the greatest fun of working on the movie. In this day and age, you don’t get to write a prison movie because they don’t make them anymore. It’s like getting the chance to do a Western or a musical, you know? It’s not something that comes down the road every day.”

It took Prison several years to get down its particular road and into production. Yablans had the idea for a haunted prison movie some years back, but never quite got it rolling. “I worked on various drafts for three or four years, dating back to when I was with Lorimar,” elaborates Yablans. “It never seemed to get done. Charlie Band and I have a relationship that goes back to when I headed up Compass International and released some of Charlie’s pictures, like Tourist Trap and Parasite. So when he heard I had this idea, Charlie understood immediately just what was intriguing about it, and he invited me over here to get it going. Within a matter of weeks, we were polishing the script and starting the shoot.”

Joyner, who has worked on unproduced screenplays with such veterans as L.Q. Jones, Virgil Vogel and filmmaker Samuel z. Arkoff, became Prison’s screenwriter for an odd reason: He wrote a script that someone else didn’t like. “A friend of mine from college named Mike Farkas had directed a film for Manson International called Prime Risk (1985), a kind of low-budget WarGames,” recalls Joyner. “It made some money in the South and overseas, and Mike asked me to write a film for him called The Penalty Box, which was a futuristic prison picture. Now, Mike loves Steven Spielberg and I love Robert Aldrich, so even in school we never quite married each other, and I gave him something that he thought was way too dark and too violent for his tastes. But the upshot of it was that Mike’s father is a friend of Irwin Yablans. When Irwin was looking for a writer on this picture, Mike recommended me. That’s how I got it.”fan70035

Once Harlin and Joyner were aboard, Yablans sat down with the two of them and began hammering out the script. “Courtney and I were very compatible. He worked in the same office with me, and we’d discuss each scene and act ’em out,” marvels Yablans. “And then Rennie got involved as well, so it was sort of an amalgam of people’s creative ideas that Courtney was able to sort of transpose and put to the written page. He’s a great collaborator, and that’s what I require when I work with writers.”

Remarks Joyner, “It’s very difficult to tell at this point where one person’s idea started and the other person’s ended, but it was always an Irwin Yablans production. I can’t emphasize that enough; he’s the experienced hand on this thing. Irwin is a real take-charge type of man. Some people would have probably resisted that hands-on producer approach. I found it very good, though, because with Irwin, you always knew where you stood.”

Six weeks of principal photography, beginning May 18, were shot entirely on location in an abandoned State Penitentiary in Rawlins, Wyoming. Built in 1901, the prison had been in use until 1981 when it was replaced by a newer facility. Re-dubbed “Rawlins International Studios” by the crew, the prison housed the entire production, including Mechanical and Make-up Imageries, Inc., whose effects were shot entirely on location. Real prisoners from the new Wyoming State Penitentiary were recruited as extras, and one, Stephen Little, even landed a feature role. The prison conditions were far from comfortable-cold, damp, and claustrophobic-but they lent an atmosphere otherwise impossible to achieve. A brooding, Gothic monstrosity erected in 1899, the building was recommended by the Wyoming Film Commission after Yablans wrote to every state in the union. Yablans and Harlin saw a picture of it, flew in to take a closer look, and were sold.


“From the very beginning I went for a film-noir type of dark, shadowy look and spent a lot of time with my cinematographer Mac Ahlberg creating and planning it,” said Harlin. “It was hard. How do you light a real prison cell, which is so small that you can hardly get two people inside and you have to have the sound crew and the camera crew and the lights and the actors? Ahlberg was able to do it, but it was a lot of extra work.”

In preparing for the production, Harlin spent several weeks interviewing inmates at the nearby Wyoming State Prison and ended up casting several of them in speaking parts. “I also arranged for the actors to meet the convicts and find out about their characters and about prison life, so everything would be as authentic as possible,” the director adds. “It really created an interesting atmosphere and feeling, and the location we were shooting was really a strange place with strange, echoing feelings. All the stories that the inmates were able to tell us were pretty amazing and really gave us something special.’

The convicts’ stories, Harlin says, tended to fall into two categories. Not surprisingly, many of them concerned the bad circumstances and rotten breaks that caused the men to land behind bars in the first place. But they also told some hair-raising stories about the old prison itself.


Continued Harlan, “I wouldn’t have been interested in doing this film if it was just a special effects movie, because I wanted to have a story and real characters. I feel that’s what’s wrong with horror and science fiction films that all they are trying to do is to have elaborate special effects and then throw in some kind of story and characters cut from cardboard. I think the audience is going to get tired of that sooner or later. I wanted the drama and the characters that you care about.”

“Until the year 1981, when it was closed, there was no heating and no hot water in certain parts of the prison. Life there was really amazing,” relates Harlin. “The main cell block where we shot, for instance, had four tiers, and people always wanted to live on the lowest tier because it was very scary to live on the third or fourth tier. If you got unpopular, the bigger guys would take you and throw you over the railing, just drop you from the fourth tier. The place is so castlelike that it had many strange corridors and hideaways that were dangerous for the guards. Once, one of the guards went to the library section and he didn’t come back. One of the other guards went to look for him, and a prisoner walked out of the library carrying this guard’s head.”

But why does guard Ethan Sharpe allow prisoner Charlie Forsythe to be executed even though he knows Forsythe is innocent? “Good question,” said Yablans. “Because the warden is a bad guy.” Then Yablans paused to think. “Actually, he killed a prisoner by accident and then to cover his tracks pinned it on this guy. We never really explain that in the movie. I hope people don’t take the trouble to ask, because it’s really not that important.”

Lane Smith, whose long list of stage and screen credits includes a regular role in the TV series “V, “had just finished shooting Weeds at Statesville Prison in Joliet, Illinois, when he was tabbed for Prison. In Weeds, Smith plays Nick Nolte’s cellmate; in Prison, he is warden.

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“There’s not a lot of comic relief in Prison,” Smith acknowledges. “W worked up there in the old deati house, and they have the ga chamber, and they had an old hanging room, and pictures of the people who had been hanged, and all this stuff. Those things carry vibrations You could just feel it from over the years. It had a real heavy feeling about it. That prison, from what we understood, was a real tough place to be, one of those places where they’d take you down and beat you with rubber hoses and that kind of stuff There’s a vibration that emanates from those places, and you just get tired of going there day after day.” So what could one do to stay loose on the set? “Go outside,” the actor laughs.


“It was very intense,” agrees Harlin. “The only relaxing moments the crew had, I guess, were on the weekends when they went river rafting or horseback riding. The scenery is so beautiful around there. But I never had time to go anywhere,” he adds with a grin, “So I don’t know.”

The intensity apparently lapped over into Smith’s performance, which Harlin compares to that of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. “I tried to bring certain psychological elements to the role,” Smith exblains. “The man has nightmares, and from that I brought in a sense of guilt about this thing that he committed 20 years ago. As I go through the film, I try to literally show a person unraveling at the seams.

Harlin reports that Prison boasts several knockout FX sequences, compliments of the lads from John Buechler’s Mechanical and Make-Up Imageries, Inc. The director is particularly proud of one scene involving a roll of barbed wire that the spirit enters and animates, wrapping up a guard and tossing him through the ceiling.

“We have big mechanical effects with people flying through walls and doors and ceilings, and animated sequences, and optical effects-some of this stuff has never been done before,” enthuses Harlin. “Really it’s hard to describe, but it’s like Poltergeist and Nightmare on Elm Street and all other possible stuff combined.”

After Harlin describes the film, the question arises: Is Prison merely Halloween behind bars? Irwin Yablans doesn’t waste any time fielding that one.

“Let me put it this way,” the producer proposes. “Prison is the freshest idea I’ve had, the most original idea I’ve had, since Halloween. It’s hard to come up with ideas that are unique and aren’t derivative of something else. Halloween was a bit of an inspired thing. It came out of necessity, but nevertheless it was fresh. It was new.

“Now,” he concludes, “Prison is another unique idea. Just as Halloween took advantage of a very obvious, neglected fact that the most horrific night of the year had never been used for a horror movie, it stands to reason that a prison, the most horrific place imaginable, ought to be used in that way, as well. So in that way, there’s a certain analogy.”

renny harlin

Interview with Renny Harlin

Can you talk about how you got involved with Prison and about your approach to the story? I was rather impressed with the amount of stunts and extras as well as all the special effects gags-that had to be a lot to manage for your first feature.

Renny Harlin: Oh yeah, I had done one film in Finland before Prison, and so I was definitely a struggling director back then. I had been out of work for a while; I was out of money and didn’t have a roof over my head. That’s when I met producer Irwin Yablans, who said he wanted to mold me into a new John Carpenter with this script he had called Prison.

It wasn’t an easy shoot at all; we made the movie for something like $1.1 million in 36 days in Rawlins, Wyoming, at this great location which made the movie feel all the more real. Look, when I made the film, I did my very best, but I was still really green. We had like a 50-person crew, which was really challenging and kind of scary for me because I had never had to manage so many people at once. Then when one of the companies involved with Prison went bankrupt, it meant the movie was never going to see a theatrical release so that was scary, too- to put so much of yourself into something that no one was going to ever see.

So I did what I could do; I took my VHS copy of Prison everywhere I could – and yes, that’s all I had – and showed it to anyone who would watch. Then I had a meeting with the producers of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies who were about to start production on Dream Master so we had a meeting after they saw what I did on Prison where they asked me a lot of questions. They wanted to know how I managed to do everything in camera because that’s something they really wanted to do for part four, and they wanted to know that I could manage a budget, and once I could convince them, they brought me on board. And Nightmare 4 completely changed my life forever; it was very successful, and I’ve always appreciated the fans’ enthusiasm towards my work on it.

I really loved the Prison cast as well- everyone from Lane Smith to Viggo (Mortensen) to the guy who played Ted’s dad in Bill & Ted to one of my all-time favorites, Tiny Lister. Just a fantastic cast of character actors that you really allowed to shine in this- what was your casting process then?

Renny Harlin: We did have a very interesting cast in this, thank you. Managing this cast was very challenging in many different ways because of the sheer numbers and the varying degree of talent. We did have a really incredible group of lead actors, but because of how many inmates we needed in order to make Prison feel authentic, we had to use some real inmates from the area because we were out of extras. That was pretty crazy. Plus it was my first time working with English-speaking actors, too, so that was something else I had to get used to.


We also had a really hard time finding our Burke (Prison’s hero); we must have auditioned like 80 different actors but just couldn’t find someone who had that look- that cool, timeless look that still felt a bit dangerous. But then Viggo came in to audition for us, and I think at the time he had only had a small role in Witness and had done some television, but I knew he was perfect for Burke. Viggo just had that quietness to him and that introspective nature that made him feel very natural for who I thought Burke was in this story. And we really clicked on Prison, too; we were both still pretty new in the business and around the same age so it was really easy to work with him.

The older character actors I used like Lane (Smith) or Hal (Landon Jr.) were far more intimidating because here I was, as green as I was, and these established, professional actors were waiting on me to tell them what to do. I probably wasn’t the best communicator back then, but I absolutely learned a lot while making Prison so it was basically like my official Hollywood movie training in some ways.

John Carl Buechler’s effects in Prison were pretty fantastic considering how ambitious a lot of those shots were with inanimate objects coming to life and stuff like that, did shooting those sequences present a huge challenge to you as well?

Renny Harlin: Part of the writing process with Courtney (Joyner) was that we looked at every horror and prison movie that we could get our hands on and approached this as realistically as we possibly could and then infused it with some action horror. We really didn’t think about how difficult the gags were going to be when we were working on the script so thankfully, when we came to everyone with these really crazy set-ups, no one even seemed to flinch. Our whole production team had a really great can-do attitude, which really helps when you’re making an indie movie; you need that.

The film’s special effects are nearly all practical. Was it a painstaking process? CGI wasn’t invented yet so we pretty much had to do everything practically. It was really like doing things with rubber bands and glue and chewing gum and popsicle sticks. It was a very fun process, but it was scary because I never knew if we were going to be able to make the gags work.

So as we were going along and shooting Prison, we were literally inventing things to pull off the gags as we went along. For the barbed wire scene, we decided to shoot all of that in reverse, which worked really well. For the inferno cell scene where we see the cell pretty much heat up and melt around Rabbit, we built a set out of opaque plastic, put glue all over the floor, set off a smoke machine and just kicked the lights way up, which really sold it. A lot of this movie was trial and error so some moments definitely work better than others. We didn’t have the time to go back and fix anything so we always had to hope it worked as well as we thought it did; thankfully, in most cases it did.

I can definitely see how Prison influenced the way you approached your work on Nightmare on Elm Street 4; it’s probably the first movie of that franchise that really embraced horror action, and I don’t think you’ve ever gotten credit for introducing that approach to the genre as a whole because we weren’t really seeing that approach too much at the time; we certainly did once Dream Master ended up being successful though.

Renny Harlin: Thanks; you know, I hadn’t really thought about it from that perspective before, but perhaps you’re right. So yeah, I would say that while Prison was my introduction into the Hollywood system, I think Nightmare 4 was my real education in terms of filmmaking because we had so many obstacles on that movie, and taking all that into consideration, it’s rather amazing how successful that sequel ended up being.

You essentially discovered Viggo Mortensen with this film. Was he an obvious choice for your lead?

Renny Harlin: I auditioned over 80 actors for the lead and I just couldn’t find the right type. I was getting quite desperate but then in walked Viggo. The moment I saw him, I knew he was exactly what I had been looking for. I said a little prayer in my mind: “Please let him know how to act!”

There are recurring religious motifs in the film, including the cross that seems to be driving the ghostly force. Was this part of a broader subtext?

Renny Harlin: When it comes to religion, I think it’s quite often tied to the horror genre. It seems to naturally belong in these kinds of movies. For some reason it seems to be a recurring theme in a lot of my movies, in one way, or another. It kind of happened naturally; on a certain level (these religious references were intentional, coming from my subconscious.

Prison (1987) Score: Richard Band Christopher L. Stone

Renny Harlin

Charles Band
Irwin Yablans

Irwin Yablans
Courtney Joyner

Chelsea Field as Katherine Walker
Lane Smith as Warden Eaton Sharpe
Arlen Dean Snyder as Captain Carl Horton
Hal Landon Jr. as Wallace
Matt Kanen as Johnson

Viggo Mortensen as Burke/Charlie Forsythe
Lincoln Kilpatrick as Cresus
Tom Everett as Rabbitt
Ivan Kane as Joe ‘Lasagna’ Lazano
André DeShields as Sandor
Tommy Lister as Tiny
Stephen Little as ‘Rhino’ Reynolds
Mickey Yablans as Brian Young
Larry “Flash” Jenkins as Hershey
Kane Hodder as Charlie Forsythe
Joseph Garcia as inmate getting hair cut

Rue Morgue 132 April 2013
Cinefantastique v18n01 (Dec 1987)

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