Director: Kevin VanHook
The Inaccurate Movie Database listing calls this film Death Row, with no alternatives listed. The opening and closing credits both call it Death Row and the screener disc has Death Row printed on it, but then somebody has crossed that out and written Haunted Prison, which is the title under which this was, I believe, shown on the Sci-Fi Channel and is hence the monicker I’m using here. My guess is that the title has been changed at the last minute to avoid confusion with another Death Row, currently in production, directed by the Quiroz brothers (Hood of the Living Dead, San Franpsycho).
What we have here are two groups of people, at loggerheads but both trapped in a building full of supernatural terrors - a fairly standard concept which has been used in films like, for example, Junk. In this case, the first to arrive are six jewel thieves on the run, led by blond, mouthy, amoral Marco. He is played by Jake Busey (Starship Troopers, The Hitcher II, The Frighteners), son of Gary Busey (The Gingerdead Man) and by golly, Jakey-boy looks like his old man. Someone needs to cast Busey pere et fils in a movie called Psycho and Son. They’d clean up.
Anyway, Marco’s gang includes Hector (Reynaldo Gallegos: Bad Boys 2, Voodoo Moon) and his girlfriend Jasmine (Jamie Elle Mann, who had an uncredited role in The 40 Year Old Virgin and a big role in an earlier film called The 24 Year Old Virgin!) plus Ron (Marco Rodriguez: Unspeakable, Toolbox Murders remake), Anibal (Russell Richardson: Ancient Evil: Scream of the Mummy - not the British actor of the same name) and injured Vincent (James Leo Ryan: Species III) who has a minor bullet wound in his leg. This sextet arrive, by some means and for some reason, at a deserted island prison, Isla de la Roca, where they plan to hide out until Vincent either recovers or dies.
Also arriving on the island is a five-person documentary crew, consisting of tall, nerdy Brian (Scott Whyte: Dead Man’s Hand, Reeker, Voodoo Moon, The Fallen Ones) whose T-shirts says ‘Han Shot First’, long-haired Keith (Kyle Schmid: The Covenant, A History of Violence), ponytailed Lisa (Shanna Collins: Sublime), blonde Missy (Claire Coffee: 13 Graves) and Hispanic Angel (Danny Arroyo: Lethal Weapon 4 and a Predator video game). Now, I say ‘documentary crew’ because that’s what they say they are; when the two groups cross paths we get several exchanges of “What are you doing here?” “We’re shooting a documentary.” and I honestly can’t tell if that’s meant to be as funny as it comes across.
Also, we saw some of this lot in a prologue interviewing a former guard, John Elias (Mike Hammer himself, Stacy Keach, who of course also plays a warden in Prison Break), in an old folk’s home. He tells them of the horrific, bloody riot which closed the prison down, a flashback indicating (though we have no idea how reliably) that he himself was the psycho warden who kickstarted the whole brouhaha. We also learn that he escaped by hacking off both his legs with an axe although it’s not clear why he had to do that nor how he survived the consequent blood loss, nor indeed how he got away once he had done it.
Anyway, about that documentary crew. The reason that I find this an unbelievable description is because between them this lot have precisely one, small video camera. It appears to be a standard domestic camcorder. They have nothing else: no sound equipment, no bags, no lights - which, apart from anything else, makes one wonder why they choose to arrive on Isla de la Roca in the middle of the night. I’ve come across this in other movies; for some reason, one thing that film-makers are very bad at representing believably on film is... film-makers.
The next question is: how big a gap is there between the crooks arriving and the video kids turning up? I think it’s supposed to be the same night - a tragic coincidence - but there’s a huge editing flub about twenty minutes into the film which leaves one in doubt. The crooks arrive in pitch blackness and put Vincent on a table in the prison canteen, then we get two consecutive scenes - Jasmine goes outside to tell Marco that Vincent’s leg is getting worse, then they both go back into the canteen - which are in daylight. Then we get the video kids arriving in more pitch blackness.
I tried to get my head around this. Distracted from the film itself, I tried to work out what was going on. Was this clever editing which used this brief sequence to jump us forward 24 hours? Do the video gang arrive on the crooks’ second night on the island? If so, why has no-one from Marco’s gang done anything, like switching the power on? Why have we not been party to whatever conversations they must have had? No, it’s no good, I can’t justify this. The bright sunlight beating down on Marco and Jasmine and then flooding in through the canteen windows is a symptom not of clever editing but of bloody awful editing. It strongly suggests post-production - or mid-production - tinkering with the storyline, shifting these two scenes forward from later in the plot.
Did nobody notice? Or did they notice but think it didn’t matter? It does matter because, apart from making a mockery of continuity and making the film look like amateur hour when it has barely started, it also, as I say, distracts the audience. While we’re trying to work out why it’s night, then day, then night again, we’re not concentrating on the plot and the characters, which is where our attention should be raptly fixed.
It makes sense for the scenes to be at this point - I can’t really see where they would fit in later. But folks, this sort of matter should be fixed before you start shooting. If these scenes were later in the plot and didn’t work were they were, that should have been remedied in Final Draft, not on an Avid. All that would be needed is a quick cut-and-paste and the judicious alteration of EXT. DAY and INT. DAY to EXT. NIGHT and INT. NIGHT - bingo!
Sorry to harp on about this, but I can’t recall the last time I saw such an amateur cock-up in a professional film. (Of course, if I’m being unfair and it genuinely is an attempt at clever editing, then it simply doesn’t work because it still looks like a flubb and it still drags the audience out of the movie. For an example of how the passage of a whole day can be shown in a few seconds with skilful editing, see my review of Footsteps.)
Anyway, let’s get back to the rather skimpy plot. Basically, the prison is haunted by all the guys who died in that riot and they take their revenge - well, it’s not really revenge, it’s just mindless violence - on the young people who have disturbed their home. The ghosts are represented with a sort of blurry effect - sometimes blurring in or out of existence - and seem to be able to interact with solid objects. But it’s entirely unclear who can or can’t see them. Marco clearly can see them but chooses not to mention them for some reason, but the others... well, it’s just not really clear. Sometimes they can, sometimes they can’t, and occasionally we get shots - not POV shots, mind - of people being attacked by ghosts that we ourselves can’t see (at least, not in that shot).
There’s a scene in a prison workshop where one of three people gets dragged by several blurry ghosts into a machine that makes license plates and is gorily chopped up. It seems that these ghosts are visible to the other two, if only because they don’t express incomprehension at how and why their associate is being crammed into a license plate machine by something invisible, but there is no comment, then or later, about precisely what happened.
In fact, this has just occurred to me. I don’t think any character at any point ever actually mentions seeing ghosts. This adds to my suspicion that only Marco can see them, but some characters definitely do see the ghosts who kill them just before they die. It’s all very confusing and inconsistent.
But anyway, die they do. Fear not, gorehounds, the main thing that Haunted Prison has going for it is some truly grizzly and frankly quite original deaths, of which the license plate hack-up is a typical example. People get cut up into pieces in ways that will have you squirming in your seat, groaning, “Oh God, no...”
But gore isn’t enough, is it? I know it’s enough for some folk but discerning horror fans expect more than just a sequence of unpleasant deaths strung together in sequence. So why is this movie so unsatisfying? Well, there’s precious little by the way of character development. Angel and Jasmine get off on the wrong foot but later have a scene (in a toilet) which indicates acceptance of each other’s differences. But neither survives much longer after that, so it feels a bit peremptory.
And there doesn’t seem to really be any plot, apart from ghostly inmates killing off the eleven intruders one by one. Even the concept of escaping - which ought to, you know, drive the whole story - is dealt with rather peripherally. The prison goes into lockdown with big steel shutters on doors and windows but then doors are opened (no flubb this, it’s inexplicable but commented upon as such) and people go outside. However, they can’t get past the electrified fence which runs in a perfect circle around the prison. And the one time that four of them do make it to the water’s edge, the video gang’s boat has disappeared. So they stroll back into the prison, ready to be trapped again. (While at the shore, one of the gang tries their mobile and declares that the whole island is a dead spot. ‘The whole island’, from trying in one spot? Anyway, we saw two crooks talking on their mobiles earlier in the film...)
There just doesn’t seem to be any reason why the people in this movie do many of the things they do. Above all, no-one seems at all surprised or concerned about the fact that they are being hunted and hideously despatched by demonfiends from beyond the grave. That’s not to say the characters are calm or confident, but it’s all ‘Help I’m being chased!’ when it should be ‘Jesus Christ, I’m being chased by undead ghouls!’ There’s a big difference, or at least there should be.
All this has something to do with Marco’s father and/or grandfather, who were both guards at Isla de la Roca. Brian and Keith find a completely undisturbed administration office - funny how the rioters missed that - replete with a convenient Chief Warden’s diary, convenient newspaper cuttings about the Chief Warden on a notice board and convenient, easily searchable files on every prisoner. From this they deduce... something. God knows what. I think the idea is that the prison itself is evil, but why that should be is not explored. It just is.
The finale .. gah, I have no idea what’s going on in the finale. The surviving video kids find themselves in what I suppose is meant to be the boiler room, as there are massive pipes and steel walkways. It looks like a factory, to be honest. And smack in the middle is some sort of evil-looking, giant furnace with twenty-foot-high CGI flames leaping out of the top (someone later leans over this, only about 20-30 feet above the flames, without even breaking a sweat). What is this thing? What part of a prison would have a massive, open-topped furnace, even if we allow that supernatural forces have rounded up some ghoulish kindling and got the fire roaring again after all these years? I’ve never seen or heard of anything like this, in a prison or anywhere else. What purpose does it serve? It’s not as if it’s heating water or supplying power, it’s just roaring away and there is a mention that the only way out of the building is up the chimney above it (but then you would still have to deal with the fence).
Maybe it’s meant to be a crematorium, but why would a prison have a crematorium and why would a crematorium be a massive room, two storeys tall, full of pipes and walkways? It just makes no sense and once again drags the viewer out of the plot (such as it is) in order to try and understand what is going on.
Anyway, the video kids shout for Marco - and he’s there, on a walkway above them. How did they know to look for him here? Who knows? It’s just one more inexplicable thing which should have been fixed on the page. And here’s something else I don’t understand: if Marco is the cause of all this - because he is somehow linked to the prison through his father and grandad - why have the ghosts made no attempt on his life while killing off his innocent comrades? Even when he does eventually die, it’s not by supernatural means, so what sort of revenge or justice is that??
Oh, and in this scene Vincent, who had quietly died a while back, returns, possessed by Marco’s grandfather. This is yet another supernatural turn of events which is simply accepted without question by all those present. There is some waffle about the prison requiring the death of an innocent man in order to, I don’t know, achieve peace or something, but this is rather tacked on and doesn’t make any more sense than anything else. In the end, the survivors race off down a corridor past lots of gruesome ghosts who simply ignore them and, as they make it out through the now-open gate the prison explodes then implodes, dragging a bunch of flying, screaming CGI skeletons down to Hell with it. Just to knock things on the head, when the survivors reach the water’s edge, there is a boat within hailing distance, which turns towards them and that’s the end.
Eh? It’s like the film abruptly stops about forty seconds before the real end because the meter ran out or something. Apart from the sheer deus ex machina of a boat being there, the audience is left expecting some sort of final shock. Or at least some sort of comment from one of the survivors. But no, the film just cuts to black and the end credits. (You can sit through them if you want but there’s no gag shot at the end, although you will get to see comics legend Bernie Wrightson given the unusual credit of ‘additional ghost designs’.)
Bits of Haunted Prison work very well - the gore and some of the dialogue - but the film as a whole fails to work and some parts of it are frankly embarrassing. Far too much is not only unexplained but actually ignored. The characters are, admittedly, mostly sympathetic - apart from Marco, obviously, a cracker of a role which is played with clear glee by Busey. In fact the acting throughout is consistently good, although don’t be fooled into thinking that Danny Trejo (Spy Kids) will turn up - he is in the film for about thirty seconds as a former prison chaplain interviewed in a clip of the so-called documentary.
George Goodridge’s production design is suitably grim and prison-like - according to an interview with Scott Whyte, real prisons were used for the locations - apart from that bizarre boiler-room place. But much of it is lost in the cinematography by Keith J Duggan (Decadent Evil, The Gingerdead Man) which is often simply too dark to see anything. Special effects are provided by Jason Collins and the wonderfully named Elvis Jones, who between them have worked on the likes of Big Bad Wolf, House of the Dead 2, Frankenfish, Bubba Ho-Tep, Spiders and both Jeepers Creepers films, as well as The X-Files and Buffy. Chadd B Cole, whose credits include Hellraiser: Hellseeker and Dracula II: Ascension, was Visual Effects Supervisor.
Producer Karen Bailey first worked with director Kevin VanHook as an actress in Frost: Portrait of a Vampire before producing his features The Fallen Ones, Slayer and Voodoo Moon (she also produced the Harry Connick Jr-narrated animation The Happy Elf!). VanHook is probably better known for his work in comics, both as artist and writer, which includes Solar: Man of the Atom, Bloodshot, Jack Frost and something which I can’t even imagine - a three-issue adaptation of The Rocky Horror Picture Show! Co-writer Rick Glassman’s only other produced credit seems to be 976-EVIL II, fourteen years earlier.
I didn’t hate Haunted Prison, in fact I quite enjoyed parts of it - but it could have been so much better. Now, I have enough experience in this industry to know that low-budgeted films like this often suffer unexpected exigencies of budget and schedule at the last minute, leaving directors and producers to make the best of what they have. So I’m prepared to cut this film some slack. It does its job in filling 90 minutes with gore, chases, shocks and a little black humour. But the things that are wrong with it - such as the bizarre location of the finale, the night/day/night editing problem, and the characters’ lack of disinterest in escaping for much of the film - are big things that simply spoil what could have been a fun little movie.
Maybe there’s a director’s cut somewhere that would sort some of this out. But I can’t help feeling that a lot of problems simply lay in the script - that this was filmed before it was ready. This looks like a film for which a script was put together, rather than a carefully created script which has then been put on film. It’s a shame, it really is, because there was a lot of potential in the basic scenario and the remarkably adroit cast.
Watch Haunted Prison for the gruesome deaths and for Jake Busey’s glorious hamming, and if you’re the sort of person for whom character motivation, credible locations and consistent timelines aren’t important, you could have a ball.
MJS rating: C