Coming to DVD Tuesday, February 12th
Michael ParÃ© as Michael Turner
Kelly Stables as Karen Bolding
Jenny McShane as Dr. Ashley Carter
Tom Sizemore as Frank Miller
Ja Rule as Terrence
Danny Trejo as Fury
Directed by William Butler
Director Renny Harlin’s little-seen “Prison” (1987) doesn’t quite rate as an undiscovered gem but yet Harlin’s tale of a haunted penitentiary (best described as “A Nightmare on Cell-Block C”) is a stylish, gruesome film that deserves a little more notoriety than it’s earned to date. As a make-up artist, William Butler worked on “Prison” early in his career and the one-time FX guy turned genre actor (“Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood,” “Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III,” “Night of the Living Dead” ’90) has become a director in recent years (Butler helmed 2004’s direct-to-DVD “Madhouse”) and with his latest film “Furnace,” he returns to his roots by making his own haunted prison movie. Unfortunately, “Furnace” is the kind of jail time not even Paris Hilton would be scared of.
“Furnace” stars Michael Pare (Eddie and the Cruisers) as Michael Turner, a troubled cop who can’t bring himself to close the books on what everyone says is a suicide case. Even though the victim shot himself while locked in the bathroom of his own home, Turner senses that there’s more to the story â the dead man has a serious hand injury that he incurred earlier in the day during his work shift at Blackgate Prison (as a side note, just once I’d love to see a prison with an upbeat name â like Sunshine Morning Prison) and Turner goes to Blackgate to gather more details.
At Blackgate, Turner meets up with the kind of characters we’ve met in movies many times before â the concerned, liberal psychologist (Dr. Ashley Carter, played by Jenny McShane) and the Asshole Guard (Frank Miller, played by Tom Sizemore). As it turns out, strange things have been happening at Blackgate ever since prison officials have put a team of prisoners to work re-opening a long-closed wing of the building. An influx of new prisoners is scheduled and the unused space is going to have to be put back in service. This is the exact same plot set-up, by the way, that was used to kick off the supernatural shenanigans of Prison â although Furnace uselessly prefaces itself with the claim that it was “Inspired By Real Events” â and as in “Prison,” breaking through the sealed walls of this closed wing releases dark forces tied to the prison’s past.
Within this wing is the furnace room where Blackgate’s former warden was murdered years ago. Now whoever enters this room dies within a short period of time. Of course, these deaths all appear to be either suicides or accidents so prison officials aren’t looking for outside causes to blame. The closest one that’s offered is that these prisoners and guards must have gotten a hold of some bad drugs and severe hallucinations are driving them to harm themselves. But it isn’t long before Turner and Dr. Carter are on to the fact that there’s something supernatural behind Blackgate’s troubles.
As it turns out, the ghosts haunting Blackgate are two-fold â a young girl and an adult male. The girl is in a blackened and burned condition while the man is more in an ashen state. The depiction of these two scorched specters is effective (thanks to the work of such FX talents such as “Night of the Living Dead” ’90 vets John Vulich and Everett Burrell), making for a pair of well-realized ghouls. The little girl is especially creepy (although how this character was so badly burned but yet still managed to keep a full head of hair, who knows?) and her appearances are occasionally jolting (albeit in a familiar, J-Horror way) with Butler proving to be a capable hand at staging scares.
But while the makers of ghost stories have historically gotten better mileage by making their hauntings of undetermined origin (as in classics like “The Haunting” and “The Shining”), Butler and his co-writer Aaron Strongoni opt to tell a conventional story in a conventional fashion â complete with a climatic flashback that provides a full blow by blow of the evil deed that put the whammy on Blackgate. The problem is that any number of generic Bad Events could’ve easily been substituted in its place with no impact on the overall story. Unless filmmakers create a haunting that has a personal resonance with their characters (as in movies like “Lady in White,” “The Changeling” â or more recently, “The Orphanage”), they might as well keep it vague. I still remember the disappointment I felt with the otherwise masterful “The Legend of Hell House” (1973) to find that the revelation behind the “Mount Everest of haunted houses” came down to the fact that Michael Gough’s deceased millionaire had been self-conscious in life about his short stature.
Butler has a great location to work with here (Blackgate ranks in good company with the Danver State Mental Hospital of “Session 9” in the eerie edifice sweepstakes), and he gets a couple of good performances out of his eclectic cast (McShane and Sizemore easily out shine their co-stars), but that only makes it all the more discouraging that “Furnace” is such a supernatural snoozer. Its central mystery isn’t compelling, the prisoners â of whom only rapper Ja Rule and Danny Trejo earn any real screen time â aren’t allowed to make a vivid impression (an area where “Prison” really shined with its roster of character actors), and while Pare’s name still brings an affection smile to many fans and he has a handsome but weather-beaten look that’s appropriate for his character, his performance aims for Burned Out but settles for a master rendition of Just Woke Up.
I’ll keep checking out Butler’s work to see if he improves on future films but in the meantime, anyone who watches “Furnace” looking for anything more than a few jump scares is going to walk away feeling burned. In the spirit of the film (and Mack 10’s rap that plays over “Furnace’s end credits), I dedicate this review to all my homies in the pen.