|"Prison - looks shit, probably is."|
1. Lead character is innocent. In general society, prison inmates are considered low-life's, scumbags, amoral leeches on society, and any other negative term you can muster. Much like lawyers, bankers, or celebrities, many are, and many are not. However, our lead must carry four pivotal qualities, in order for any incarceration movie to work; intelligence, courage, honour... and by far the most vital, be completely innocent of the crimes he has been committed for.
2. Prison Homosexuals fancy lead character.
The bull queen – with cronies in tow, will take a shine to the handsome lead – usually from the moment he arrives. None of the gang are gay as such - just sexually desperate, to the point they will stick their Johnsons in anything remotely human; and a rugged macho-male is exactly what the doctor order for this nefarious chubby bandit. Eventually, our hero will hand the three a good beating, as they come on to him in the communal shower; the message simple... I am a razor sharp arse-kicker, and I don’t want knobs up my bum.
3. Religious radical nut-case Governor.
A middle-aged con-man; more corrupt politician, than leader of guilty men. He will recognize the new inmate’s skills from the get go. Feeling threatened and insecure, he stops at nothing to break his spirit; often employing his favourite sado-masochistic, Nazi loving warden as his physical enforcer. The lead antagonist, this bible-bashing bastard is guaranteed to receive his comeuppance via a gruesome yet accidental death, five minutes before the end credits roll.
4. One warden; vicious and sadistic, another; kind and empathetic.
Beatings are commonplace with the former. He is an embittered psychopath; as institutionalised as the most hardened inmates. He has no personal vendetta against the main character, as opposed to enjoying the brutal thrill of handing other men vicious beatings. In contrast, his counterpart is grounded in human empathy – and shall at one point help the prisoners in a priceless manner. Unlike our sadist; who will either die, or get arrested for the dodgy acts he secretly involves himself in, with the governor. It is rare, but not uncommon for the kind warden to replace the recently deceased governor.
5. Lead character has own cell, and at one point spends long periods in solitary.
The hole is a small, dingy, pitch black cell; barely big enough to stand in. A place where you receive bread and water for dinner, and your weekly wash is an aggressive hose-down; usually from the evil warden. And for any general reason - but in reality due to his stubborn refusal to become one of the governors "men". Our lead will experience a long period living inside one of these hell holes (varying from a week to six months), in order to break him even more. This attempt usually fails, and only strengthens our hero’s resolve to find freedom.
6. Wiley inmate (usually Black), get stuff. Helps lead character plot escape.
This old guy has seen it all. Incarcerated for a foolish act as a young man (as well as being black), over a short course of time, begins to understand the nature of the leads intellect. Without his aid and knowledge of these complex old buildings, escape is impossible. Has a 50% chance of parole, within the movie’s time-frame.
7. Elderly inmate befriends lead, offers wise advice... dies shortly afterwards. In his 70's, collects birds, plants, or paints. His main role is to show the lead character how a lifetime in prison (the lead always gets life), creates a poor, slightly deluded life of institutionalisation. While our black fellow still harbours the outside, it scares this guy shitless. Once he has taught the younger man the internal agony of this, he will usually be blown to pieces by a rudimentary bomb, devised by a still bitter bull Queen; who eventually gets transferred for this act, as the kind warden likes our lead, because our lead liked the old man.
8. Young upstart inmate arrives, gives lead meaning... dies shortly afterwards.
The opposite side of this spectrum – and interchangeable with the elderly lifer. This guy is reckless yet good-natured, and is designed to bring out the nurturing side of our hero. Once he has passed the exams he never thought he could, or built the car he had never been able to drive, our lead decides how much he misses his former responsibility of the outside world. Only then is this young-upstart murdered by a sadistic governor, solely to teach our lead, who is in charge.
9. Prison unites for brief, light-hearted moment.
Watching people contained in a living hell is pretty depressing stuff, and a refreshing moment of mass congregation is necessary to split the misery of it all. It is often a primal event; game of football in the mud, rodeo competition, or even food eating contest. These often serve as a useful plot device to galvanize our lead and a grey-area inmate - who works for his own cause, but is proved to be one of the good guys in the end.
10. Lead character escapes.
With the aid of the old man, the kind warden, a long while of frustration, seeing death, destruction, misery, a few close scrapes, and a lot of nerve, our hero finally escapes and finds freedom. The good get their justification, and the bad do too. If he doesn’t, the whole movie becomes a complete waste of time. He was always innocent anyway, and shouldn’t have been there in the first place… and who wants a crappy ending?
And there you have it. Prison movies are always fun to watch, and even though they often follow a stoic formula, I personally love a good movie set in jail. Who knows, maybe like Cabin In The Woods did for the Horror genre, a maverick director will revolutionize this type of movie. Until then, I believe all these rules are applicable...
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