Monday, July 5, 2010

Prison Prescription: THE CHAIR (1988) and DEATH HOUSE (1988)

Maybe it was something in the L.A. water, but horror movies set in prison became all the rage in the late 80s. The market was flooded with titles such as DEATH ROW DINER (1988), DESTROYER (1988), PRISON (1988), SLAUGHTERHOUSE ROCK (1988), and TERROR AT ALCATRAZ (1986). Even slasher flicks like THE HORROR SHOW (1989) and SHOCKER (1989) couldn’t resist throwing in some ol’ electric chair excitement. I’m shocked 80s Hollywood never got us a horror prison movie set underwater! Two of the lesser entries in this subgenre are THE CHAIR (1988) and DEATH HOUSE (1988).

Warden Edward Dwyer (Paul Benedict, the doorman from THE JEFFERSONS) re-opens a dilapidated prison with the help some trustee inmates (including Brad Greenquist and Stephen Geoffreys). Along for the ride are psychologist Dr. Langer (James Coco) and his assistant Lisa (Trini Alvarado), who try to help the prisoners with some 80s "I'm okay, you're okay" therapy. Of course, this prison has - I hope you have already guessed - a history and there is a ghost out for revenge. Seems some rowdy prisoners executed the former warden several years before and Dwyer, a guard at the time, failed to intervene. Naturally, this means lots of innocent (and presumed innocent) folks get chopped and zapped before the warden gets his comeuppance.

Believe it or not, this is one of the few flicks produced by Angelika Films, a production company from the folks who founded NYC's famous Angelika Film Center (same logo and everything). For a group known for having its finger on the indie film pulse, they sure didn't know crap about making a viable commercial product. Actually, husband and wife industrial filmmakers Waldermar Korzenioswsky and Carolyn Swartz are mostly to blame here as they never make it horrific enough, unless you count their terrible attempts at comedy and the ill-fitting piano score and opening jazz tune. Just what the hell was the film supposed to be? And how can you waste such a good location and actors? The film ends with an on screen dedication reading "For Jimmy" as lead Coco died during filming. Poor Jimmy (in both regards).

The many stages of THE CHAIR grief:

THE CHAIR is one of those classic examples of my growth period as a teen when I learned that movies aren’t necessarily as good as the stills run in Fangoria to promote the film. I remember being impressed by the blue-hued pics of the first warden being fried with his skin bubbling as a result. Then you have Stephen Geoffreys in the mix. “Damn, that’s Evil Ed,” thought my fourteen year old brain, “He is gonna be awesome as a wacko prisoner. And James Coco, he is a respectable actor, right?” So with visions of Renny Harlin’s PRISON dancing in my head, I expected a dark prison ghost revenge tale. What I got instead was sentenced to my own video execution with a film that can’t decide if it is a comedy, drama, or horror film.

If heightened expectations were one of the reasons for my disappointment in THE CHAIR, they may be the sole reason for why my head hangs in my hands after watching John Saxon’s DEATH HOUSE. Originally profiled in Gorezone magazine, this one got built up in my brain by a certain mindset that was forever exorcised from my mind after I saw Bruce Campbell direct movies. “John Saxon is directing!?! He has worked with masters of horror like Wes Craven and Bob Clark. And tons of Italians! Surely he must have picked up something from them over the years,” rationalized my naïve 80s brain once again. And the plot sounded awesome: the Government was trying out an experimental serum on prisoners that makes them go berserk. “Wow, it will be like RE-ANIMATOR in prison,” said Will’s optimistic mind. Well, I had to wait much longer to catch this bad boy (20 years) and the only common ground it shares with Stuart Gordon’s classic is that it is in focus.

Framed by mafia boss Vic Moretti (Anthony Franciosa), Derek Keillor (Dennis Cole) ends up on death row, right alongside the mob boss' brother Frankie (Frank Sarcinello Jr.). But this is the least of Derek's problems as rogue government agent (and mob stoolie) Col. Burgess (John Saxon) is using the prison as a testing ground for a new experimental super-virus. Soon Keillor’s sole prison friend is executed and he turns into a rage filled zombie that causes a prison riot to break out. This doesn’t fare well for visiting TV reporter Tanya (Tane McClure), who just happens to also be a former biochemist (really!). And wouldn’t you know it, today just happens to be the day Warden Hagan (Alex Courtney) brought his family to visit.

This is the only flick Saxon directed during his storied career. Sure, it is low budget, but that can't excuse the stilted staging, shooting gaffes, or clumsy exposition in the first 15 minutes. Seriously, the first 15 minutes are filled with so much stuff going on that you might need a chalk board to keep track of it all. Try to follow me: Derek is a Vietnam vet who stays with an old combat buddy (SUPERFLY’s Ron O’Neal) before getting a job as Moretti’s mob chauffer. He falls for mob trophy wife Genelle (Dana Lis) by a fast glance in the rearview mirror and they are (even faster) getting it on. Derek also foils a dirty deal gone bad in a back alley, even though he just “wants to stay out of it.” Moretti then kills Genelle in the hot tub (but not before lathering her breasts) and frames Derek for the murder. He goes on trial (voiceover time!) and is sentenced to death. This all happens in the first 15 minutes! To his credit, Saxon did make it slightly gory and he works in a hilarious nude scene (our lead actually falls asleep during a prison riot only to fantasize about a female scientist-turned-reporter). Cole, who looks like a more rugged Jan-Michael Vincent, is decent as the stoic lead and Franciosa - sporting a really bad rug - gives it his all as the cliché mob boss.

In the end, DEATH HOUSE is a total mess that is still an oddly watchable mess. According to director Fred Olen Ray, Saxon fell behind schedule rather quickly and he was brought on to help move the project along. Perhaps sensing the film needed some extra umph, Olen Ray’s Retromedia released this on DVD as ZOMBIE DEATH HOUSE with the title addition not even trying to look like it wasn’t meant to be there. As for my childhood delusions, I finally got my “RE-ANIMATOR in prison” with BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR (2003). Guess what? It sucked. But that didn’t stop my stumbling brain from thinking at the time, “Damn, RE-ANIMATOR in a prison? This is gonna be awesome!”

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