February 20, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Brian Jagger
Culture Representation: Taking place in Boise, Idaho, the horror flick “Paranormal Prison” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and one Native American) representing the middle-class and working-class.
Culture Clash: A group of YouTube paranormal investigators, who are led by a cynical skeptic, visit an abandoned prison that is supposedly haunted.
Culture Audience: “Paranormal Prison” will appeal primarily to people who will watch any horror movie, no matter how terrible or boring it is.
Horror movies have a reputation for being extremely derivative because so many of them recycle the same ideas that dozens of other horror flicks have already done. Slasher flicks have a maniac on the loose. Ghost stories have a group of people trapped somewhere with a spirit that’s supposed to be terrifying. And so, with originality not usually being a characteristic of a lot of horror movies, these movies should at least have some level of suspense and plenty of scares. Unfortunately, “Paranormal Prison” (directed by Brian Jagger) fails on every level of what makes a good horror movie.
“Paranormal Prison” looks like a student film that was made without any experienced filmmakers giving much-needed suggestions on all the improvements that should have been made to this embarrassing dud. This 70-minute movie is a terrible bore that, at best, should have been a short film instead. If you want to watch a feature-length movie where almost everything except for the last 15 minutes consists of people monotonously walking and talking in what’s supposed to be an abandoned prison, then go ahead and waste your time watching “Paranormal Prison.”
“Paranormal Prison” borrows heavily from the “Paranormal Activity” concept, including repeatedly using screens that show icons for recording activity and battery life, to replicate video recordings from the camera-operating perspective. The very thin plot of “Paranormal Prison” is that four paranormal investigators go to an unnamed abandoned prison in Boise, Idaho, to find out if the stories are true about the prison being haunted. The investigators are all in their 20s, except for their leader, who’s in his 30s. They are the staffers for a YouTube channel called The Skeptic & The Scientist, whose purpose is to debunk paranormal activity stories.
The four people on this excursion are:
- Matthew (played by Todd Haberkorn), also known as The Skeptic, who’s the group’s cocky and obnoxious leader. Matthew is financing the YouTube channel with his trust fund money. He constantly likes to tell the other people on the team that they have to do what he says because he’s paying for everything.
- Sara (played by Paris Warner), also known as The Scientist, is a self-described “tech geek.” She has invented a paranormal detection device that she will test for the first time in the abandoned prison.
- Ashley (played by Coryn Treadwell), the channel’s sound technician, is a military veteran who joined the paranormal group after experiencing a personal tragedy that she talks about in the movie.
- Jacob (played by Brian Telestai), the channel’s camera operator, is romantically involved with Ashley, even though his boss Matthew has a romantic interest in her too.
Matthew and Sara are the co-hosts of The Skeptic & The Scientist. Matthew doesn’t believe in ghosts, while Sara is open to the idea of ghosts existing if there is scientific proof. Even though Matthew and Sara co-host the channel, he never lets her or anyone else forget that he’s in charge. Because Matthew doesn’t believe that spirits exist, he doubts the effectiveness of Sara’s invention, which she calls a syncotron kinetic energy testing computer.
The abandoned prison that these paranormal investigators will be visiting was shut down in 1973, after its last big prison riot. The prison had a section for men and a section for women. According to a montage of local citizens being interviewed in grainy video footage, there was a government cover-up of a 1939 riot at the prison, where three prison guards were killed during this riot. Ever since the prison was permanently closed, it’s become known as a haunted site, and tours are given to the public.
The prison is said to be haunted by serial killer Mary Beth Flake, a local heiress from the early 1900s who was convicted of murdering several people (including her husband) because they were opposed to her suffragette activities for women’s right to vote. The abandoned prison also has an eerie reputation because people who make any recordings inside the prison find out after they leave the prison that their recordings are blank. The prison is about to be torn down and condominiums built in its place.
The Skeptic & The Scientist team members are the last people who’ve gotten a permit to film inside the prison before the building will be demolished. The four paranormal investigators go to the prison and are greeted by an assigned park ranger whose last name is Shtog (played by Easton Lay), and he gives them a guided tour of the run-down facilities. This begins the long-winded majority of this tedious movie, where it’s nothing but all five of them going from room to room while filming and talking. They’re supposed to be the only people in the prison . But are they really? The crew sets up some surveillance equipment, and not much happens for most of the story.
During this tour, Shtog tells them more details about Mary Beth Flake, whose photo is shown several times in the movie, as if it’s supposed to be scary. The local folklore about Mary Beth Flake (played by Amanda Fitch, because you already know that this movie will show her as a ghost) is that she is always associated with four roses. There’s a bushel of four roses growing year-round outside the prison that are supposedly kept alive because of the spirit of Mary Beth Flake. And the local legend is that if any of the four roses start to go away, that means trouble is coming.
Over the years, people who had ghost sightings at the prison reported smelling roses before they saw the ghost. The four roses are there when the team arrives at the prison. But it should come as no surprise that one of the four roses has gone missing while these visitors are inside the building. Sara is the first to notice the missing rose. She becomes frightened and asks the other people who has the flower. The other people there deny that they took the rose.
During the tour, the investigators see a large male mannequin lying on a bed in a prison cell. Shtog explains that the mannequin is of a real-life prisoner named Black Wolf, a Native American who was incarcerated during the same time as Mary Beth Flake. According to Shtog, she hated Black Wolf because he wasn’t white, and the two became mortal enemies. Predictably, Black Wolf (played by Don Shanks) is more than a mannequin in this movie.
During the long stretch of time when not much happens in the movie, there are some very weak attempts to bring some scares, by showing glimpses of shadows. Matthew mouths off a lot and becomes more and more irritating as the story goes on. Sara’s invention is supposed to work by showing a green light if it detects humans and a blue light if it detects a paranormal entity. But it’s questionable if they really need this invention because these paranormal investigators still get ambushed. And there’s at least one predictable “fake scare” scene in the movie.
“Paranormal Prison” director Jagger wrote the movie’s screenplay with Randall Reese, and it’s their first feature film. This lack of experience shows in the worst ways. “Paranormal Prison” is an example of a badly made movie that’s ruined by unnecessary filler. And certain details that should have been intriguing, such as the story about the four roses associated with Mary Beth Flake, end up being irrelevant to the movie’s conclusion.
The acting performances in this movie range from mediocre to downright awful. The filmmakers deserve some credit for not having sexist horror clichés of making the male characters the smartest ones who always come to the rescue of “weaker” female characters. In “Paranormal Prison,” the female characters are more intelligent than the male characters. But that’s not saying much when all the movie’s characters are stuck with forgettable dialogue, and the acting just isn’t very good at all. And because almost the entire film takes place inside a run-down building, there’s nothing impressive about the movie’s production design.
The last 15 minutes of “Paranormal Prison” are rushed, with scares and chase scenes crammed in, almost as afterthoughts. And a backstory is quickly introduced to explain why the prison is haunted. But these plot developments are too little, too late. “Paranormal Prison” is an apt title because viewers unlucky enough to watch this entire movie will feel like they’re trapped in a jail cell of unnaturally horrible and repetitive boredom.
Gravitas Ventures released “Paranormal Prison” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on February 19, 2021.