Three Star Masterpiece: The Stylistic Allure of David DeCoteau’s Prison of the Dead (2000)

Matty unleashes a quick appraisal of the homoerotic horror auteur’s slick programmer.

Though released the month before J.R. Bookwalter’s also-lensed-in-Bucharest Witchouse II: Blood Coven (2000), David DeCoteau’s PRISON OF THE DEAD was, in fact, the final Full Moon flick to be made in Romania, before the studio’s legendary head honcho, Charlie Band, reverted his production line back to the US. Shot on jail sets left over from Dimension Films’ Highlander: Endgame (2000), and built from an idea that DeCoteau and scripter Matthew Jason Walsh had been kicking about called ‘Creepies’, Prison of the Dead finds a gaggle of college kids — a paranormal society, of sorts — descending upon the eponymous old penitentiary-cum-funeral home and falling afoul of a triumvirate of zombie executioners.

It’s a simple but effective off point, and the sole criticism of the film is how much DeCoteau and Walsh needlessly complicate their mythology with confusing extra padding like witches, possession, and some weird key. However, such additional spooky nonsense does afford DeCoteau the chance to flex his stylistic muscles, and it’s as a slick, robust, and sustainedly ghoulish exercise in horror aesthetics that Prison of the Dead excels.

Sitting alongside Shrieker (1998) as the visual and tonal template the director would follow with his subsequent Rapid Heart productions (The Brotherhood (2001), Leeches! (2003) et al), Prison of the Dead is beautiful to look at and full of richly macabre imagery. Oozing inky blacks and blues, and punctuated by a constantly flickering lightning machine, the luxuriously composed scene in which the Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972)-esque executioners (designed and created by Jeffrey S. Farley and Chris Bergschneider to DeCoteau’s Amando de Ossorio-homaging specifications) rise from the earth is hair-raising, and the Barker-tinged lyricism to DeCoteau’s dreamy and esoteric closing stretch is hypnotically creepy.

Character-wise, Prison of the Dead also features one of DeCoteau’s most interesting leads: Patrick Flood as ‘Kristof St. Pierce’, a spoilt bisexual rich kid who seems to control his pals via money and sex. A bastard without question, it’s testament to both DeCoteau’s willingness to anchor his films with flawed individuals and Flood’s libertine charm that you still find yourself rooting for Kristof when he becomes the last boy standing. He’s hard to like, but equally hard to hate. Flood even makes a decent fist of some truly risible ‘mean teen’ dialogue, rendering even the more ear-stinging moments of sub-Cruel Intentions (1999) cattiness believable.

USA/Romania ● 2000 ● Horror ● 73mins

Patrick Flood, Jeff Peterson, Sam Page, Kim Ryan ● Dir. David DeCoteau (as ‘Victoria Sloan’) ● Wri. Matthew Jason Walsh

Prison of the Dead (2000) - Poster


Follow Matty on Twitter @mattybudrewicz

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