Concider the opening credits sequence: creepy Charles Band music escorts a prisoner and his guards to the electric chair. We don't see the inmate, we ARE him: the entire sequence is seen from his point of view; the camera being both his eyes and ours.
We hear the man gasp none the less, and for a moment we remember being the masked killer Michael Myers in John Carpenter's landmark slasher "Halloween" which had the same cinematic trick in the opening minutes.
But as soon as the condemned man is sitting on his death thrown and a hood is being put on his head, covering his face, the camera angle changes: now we see him sitting in the chair, now sharing the guards' points of view. Meanwhile a clock is ticking, the condemned man is strapped tight, deadpan faces of the people around him looking at each other, and at nothing... Tention builds, and at the climax, when even the most experienced horror adict discovers that he's holding his breath in vain, the switch is pulled and sparks explode in our faces. The body is thrashing with convulsions, we hear the man's breathing being smothered. And just when the scene is about to be unbearable to watch....
Yeah, this is a B-movie with some balls and a spine, but beware the shivers crawling down that spine... for this is not your average prison movie - it's a horror flick, and knowing that, we immediately feel a sense of claustrophobia. Together with the characters, we are inside a prison, iron bars and high walls everywhere: So whatever it is that will cause the horror, there is seemingly no escape from it.
Filmed on location in a real prison and with use of real inmates as extra's, the tense atmosphere is created for the most part by the brooding faces we see. The furious lightning-spitting eyes of warden Sharp, the care-for-nothing glances of the guards, the pale, tired eyes of the inmates themselves, all are looking at each other with distrust, with disgust, and sometimes, with curiossity.
One inmate who constantly feels the eyes of others in his neck is Burke, a young, quiet guy with a flinch of James Dean - perfectly played by the then not-so-well-known Viggo Mortensen. His curious layed-out relationship with an old black guy hints at the much later filmed "The Shawshank Redemption" with the young quiet Tim Robbins hooking up with the old, experienced Morgan Freeman. But these guys overhere are all the more real and captivating, in that their motivation for being there and concequently being the persons they are, is less spelled out and more suggested.
"Lock down!" is being yelled throughout the building and night falls in. And when Burke is being asked to break through the brick wall that covers the entrance of the execution chamber, nasty things start to happen.
What nasty things is up to you to witness: but however cheap and worn-out the B-plot is, the story is tight and crammed with well written dialogue, solid action, touches of black humor, and truly gory effects. Just wait until that string of barbe wire comes to live, you'll understand what I say.
Next to "The reflecting skin" and "The Indian runner", this is easily one of Viggo's most intense performances, showing that less is defenitly more. The same goes for the other actors although most of them will not get into later A-grade movies.
It's also director Renny Harlins best thing - it's his second movie, coming straight after the lesser known but even suspensefull "Born American", another prison movie set in cold-war-Russia.
But for now... Lock down. It's your time to die. Nighty-night boys...