Friday, 27 January 2017

Prison of the Dead - review

2000 (USA)

Contains spoilers.

There's really not a lot to say about this appalling turn of the century low budget zombie snore-fest. Resembling more a tepid amateur high school project that any kind of sincere or mature production, it's inconsistent plot and drawn out dialogue heavy narrative, is matched only by its strict intent to demonstrate no originality, content merely to rehash all and every outdated and hokey horror trope without a care. Quite what director David DeCoteau (tellingly listed under pseudonym Victoria Sloan) and writer Matthew Jason Walsh were trying to achieve in this hour fifteen car crash I'm not quite sure. Neither comedy, drama or a horror with any real teeth; Prison of the Dead plays like it wants to be a cult and edgy young adult, possibly self-deprecating, Return of the Living Dead wannabe but comes across more as a bland, silly and rather insulting episode of Goosebumps, save with excessive bad language.

If I asked a group of junior school pupils to describe the setting and atmosphere for a haunted horror I don't think it'd be far removed from that of Prison of the Dead. A gloomy, derelict and isolated funeral home built over the long abandoned ruins of a medieval dungeon that once held witches and warlocks. A bleak and stormy night with owls hooting, billowing fog and complete with thunder and lightning. Four weary friends, two girls and two buys, reuniting to pay their respects to an old friend, and more than happy to send their driver away, and open an old creaking door to their inevitable doom. Now there can be a time and a place for cheesy nostalgic homage, and revisiting old myths and stories, but Prison of the Dead isn't it. The derivative setting isn't tribute or cute; it's lazy and easy; and the story isn't an inventive twist on the familiar but a wearisome and altogether incoherent set of musings from a team that clearly didn't care.

Brought together by Kristof St. Pierce (Patrick Flood), a spoilt, rich, occult obsessed man-child and also the recent heir of Hawthorne funeral home, the group soon realise the late Calvin (Sam Page) isn't actually that dead and their reunion is all actually part of some ill-conceived plan to bring the old scooby-doo clique back together to speak to the dead, unearth some mysterious lost key and solve an ancient mystery. All well and good if they'd just get on with it; yet the vast majority of the film is the group, plus three additional well-groomed locals seemingly intent to spoil the party for shits and giggles, happy squabbling and bitching to one another generally over how they don't want to be there. For a film that spends pretty much all it's time bogged down in character dynamics you'd have thought too, there would have been some effort to make the characters more interesting and agreeable. Whether a design decision or inexperience, Calvin, Kristof, Rory (Michael Guerin), Kat (Alicia Arden) and Michele (Debra Mayer) are played dryer than the Atacama Desert  (I looked it up; this is the driest desert). Even when people do start dropping; or glazing over and chanting the Latin (I think) beyond the grave mantra the predisposition is always stoical and the responses nonchalant and mostly self-absorbed. I'm all for the odd dry and unlikable character but when the lack of interest, care or any urgency is shared by all it's really hard not to end up sharing in the apathy.

I say, when people start dropping. Noting the eighteen certificate, the cover and presentation, and the horror credentials one would assume adult content. Nada. Okay the zombies initial appearance; skeletal medieval axe, scythe mace wielding long dead executioners sombrely and menacingly clambering from the soil is promising, and delightfully old school, reminiscent of all our old continental favourites, especially the blind dead. Yet, for the number of deaths that are eventually perpetrated there's a ridiculously low quantity of blood, next to no gore and no actual on-screen horror to actually speak of. As the film progresses each and every unlucky soul is suddenly, and arbitrarily taken by a spasm of shameful CG, a moment of possession as one of the so called long dead witches takes control before one of the zombie executioners pops out from nowhere ready for the camera to pan away, them to slash, and someone to throw something red and wet over the lens. I'm not advocating that all horror needs to be in your face and wall to wall torture porn, but this is tame for convenience sake and detracts totally from what I believe was being aimed for. In fact the only adult content I'd argue would be the copious bad language; even the token contrived sex scene seemed to mandate modesty, and with the f's and blinds dialled down I'd honestly, save for the fact it's so god damn awful, have no qualms letting my children watch it.

With more effort and energy with the action and a good rewrite of the script focusing on the transitions between the various sequences, and imbuing the characters with some charm and reason to care at all for them, there's a movie here that could probably match the reasonably competent directorial and camera work. Though not a lot more if we're all honest. Sometimes one just needs to call it as it is; that Prison of the Dead was probably a bad film before the ink was dry, and quite how someone thought an amateur budget, cast and production was going to imbue it with the necessary life and savvy to stand out was baffling to say the least. There's very little to recommend in this seventeen year old miss, and it's not one you'll be doing yourself a disservice for skipping, even if like me you want to watch them all - 2/10.


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