Every great actor has some garbage at the beginning of their career, and Viggo Mortensen is no exception. A great example would be "Prison," a little B-movie set in a nasty prison -- Mortensen has some nice moments and the kills are both creative and nicely grotesque, but most of the cast is instantly forgettable and the plot is incredibly confusing.
Creedmore Prison is reopened after being vacant for thirty years. A new crop of prisoners are brought in to live there, including the quiet car thief Burke (Mortensen). who immediately impresses the others by being relatively nice to everybody who isn't, well, a jerk. On the very first day, Warden Sharpe (Lane Smith) orders the old execution room to be opened -- only for a bright light and electricity to flood out of it.
And almost immediately, people start dying -- a man is fried alive in his cell, another is brutally cut up in the ceiling, and another is throttled with barbed wire.
Sharpe blames the inmates, but it soon becomes obvious that a more supernatural threat is responsible. Safety inspector Katherine Walker (Chelsea Field) begins to investigate the prison's history, and discovers that the spirit of an executed prisoner -- who just happens to look exactly like Burke -- is getting revenge for his death thirty years ago.
"Prison" is not a terrible movie -- just a rather inept one. It's one of those horror movies where most of the characters are indistinguishable from each other, the motivation of the ghost is murky at best, and there are important answers never given. For instance, why do Burke and Forsythe look exactly alike? Are they father and son? It's never even touched on, and the resemblance adds nothing to the movie.
However, despite the hot mess that is the plot, it does manage some lovely horror moments -- the gruesome death via barbed-wire strangulation is just terrifying, and the pervasive sense of fear really does come across. And the prison, full of dark shadows and dank, dungeon-like cells, gives a genuinely claustrophobic feeling to the horror.
In other words, it's a good concept and some excellent B-movie horror, but handled clumsily with ill-defined characters and a really, really goofy climax. With a bit more finesse, it could have been fun.
You can tell that this is an early role of Mortensen's, because he's pretty rough compared to his later nuanced roles. However, he does give a nice subtle performance as a car thief with a heart of gold, who is kind to others even in prison. Lincoln Kilpatrick gives the most nuanced performance as an older man tormented by the past, and the rest are either stock roles (the token girl, the nasty warden) or a sea of inmate faces that just sort of blur together.
"Prison" feels like a first-timer's TV movie, but it at least has more heart, guts and horror than anything you'll see on the SyFy Channel. Enjoy for the creative horror, and don't expect a lot more.