With our last list (Furious Road Movies) we dealt with the theme of travel, moreover life on the road where people can feel the wind in their hair, look out at the horizon and think about all the things out there to explore. Now in a switch of pace we’d like to shift focus to another subgenre that deals with what it’s like to live in a controlled environment. It’s a place of confinement inside walls made of concrete and steel, where the sun doesn’t shine and iron bars hold in the human spirit. The prison subgenre film is especially great because although these films are about people who have lost their ability to live without limits, they almost always deal with characters fighting back against the extreme oppression chaining them down….and that’s furious!

Midnight Express

Midnight Express (1978, Dir: Alan Parker)
In 1970, an American student, Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) is arrested for attempting to smuggle hashish out of Turkey and thrown in prison where he meets a group of oddball inmates whom he befriends. The film vividly shows the brutal, nightmarish atmosphere Hayes had to live in and his numerous escape attempts during his confinement. This is certainly one of the most furious entries on our list. Based on a true story. Co-starring Bo Hopkins, Randy Quaid, John Hurt. Screenplay by Oliver Stone. WATCH TRAILER

Escape From Alcatraz

Escape From Alcatraz (1979, Dir: Don Siegel)
Based on a true story, Clint Eastwood plays Frank Morris, a prisoner who leads a daring escape from the legendary San Francisco island prison along with three other men. During his stay, Morris must also deal with a psychotic bully out to kill him and the cruel warden (Patrick McGoohan) who is sadistic towards the prisoners. Eastwood brings his ice cold demeanor to the role but also makes Morris an empathetic character we can identify with. Co-starring Fred Ward and Roberts Blossom. WATCH A CLIP


Papillon (1968, Dir: Franklin J. Schaffner)
In one of Steve McQueen’s finest performances he plays Papillon, a Frenchman accused of killing a pimp. He is subsequently sent to the penal colony of Devil’s Island in French Guyana. Along the way he becomes friends with Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman) a nerdy white collar criminal. The hellish living and treatment he must endure is accented by moments of comraderie, humor and personal triumph. Based on a true story. WATCH TRAILER

The Great Escape

The Great Escape (1963, Dir: John Sturges)
During World War II, Allied P.O.W.s stuck in a Nazi prison camp use their collective intelligence to plan a daring breakout by digging a tunnel underground. Based on true events. Featuring an amazing cast including: Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Richard Attenborough, James Coburn and James Garner. WATCH TRAILER

Cool Hand Luke

Cool Hand Luke (1967, Dir: Stuart Rosenberg)
Paul Newman is Luke Jackson, a good ol’ southern boy who just cant live life according to the rules set up by society. Luke is busted for cutting the heads off parking meters and thrown on a Florida chain gang where he meets a colorful group of convicts including “Dragline” (George Kennedy) the prison camp’s resident loud talkin’ leader of sorts. The film is all about fighting the powers that be. WATCH TRAILER

Stalag 17

Stalag 17 (1953, Dir: Billy Wilder)
Master filmmaker Billy Wilder presents a different twist on this subgenre with a comedic World War II story about a bunch of rough and tumble American POWs who are locked up in a Nazi prison camp. When the men find out there’s a Nazi spy in their midst trying to find out their secrets the atmosphere goes sour and the paranoia and in-fighting starts. Starring William Holden, Otto Preminger, Peter Graves. WATCH TRAILER

The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption (1994, Dir: Frank Darabont)
A quiet accountant named Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is falsely charged for murdering his wife and her lover. He is sent to Shawshank prison where he befriends a small group of convicts including Red (Morgan Freeman) a lifer. Andy’s calm integrity and intelligence gets his criminal pals to respect him and the evil warden (Bob Gunton) and guards to trust him. A modern classic work of cinema based on one of Stephen King’s stories that strangely isn’t about horrific subject matter. WATCH TRAILER

Bad Boys
Bad Boys (1983, Dir: Rick Rosenthal)
Punk teen Mick O’Brien (Sean Penn) is thrown into a juvenile detention center after a robbery goes wrong in which his high school rival Paco Moreno’s (Esai Morales) little brother is tragically killed. In a twist of fate the two mortal enemies end up in the same facility where a violent battle begins between them as the fellow teen inmates watch and bet on who will be offed first. WATCH TRAILER

The Longest Yard

The Longest Yard (1974, Dir: Robert Aldrich)
In this sports themed spin on the prison drama, Burt Reynolds plays Paul “Wrecking” Crewe an all star football player who is thrown in prison after a fight with his girlfriend in which he steals her car, leads police on a chase and drives it into the ocean. While in the joint, the rebellious Crewe becomes an inspiration to the inmates and soon teaches them they can take on the cruel prison guards in a game of football as means of comeuppance. The film was remade in 2005 and starred Adam Sandler with a cameo by Reynolds as Nate Scarborough the coach. WATCH A CLIP

Lock Up

Lock Up (1989, Dir: John Flynn)
When auto mechanic turned convict Frank Leone (Sylvester Stallone) learns his mentor is dying he pleads with the warden Drumgoole (Donald Sutherland) to let him see his friend one last time. Drumgoole refuses to let him out, so Leone escapes after which he is caught but informs the press about the situation that led him to do what he did. Leone in turn is given a shorter sentence and Drumgoole is sent to another prison. When Leone’s time is nearly finished he is taken by force to Gateway, a maximum security prison where Drumgoole now precides over the inmates with fury. The diabolical warden plans to make Leone’s existance at Gateway as unhappy as possible and make him stay in prison for life…one way or another. WATCH TRAILERĀ 

Honorable Mention

House of Numbers

House of Numbers (1957, Dir: Russell Rouse)
In the most obscure pick on our list, Jack Palance plays twin brothers Arnie and Bill Judlow, one of which is stuck in prison. The twins use their unique familial traits as a way to switch personas. An entertaining late 50s noir twist on the standard prison breakout storyline. WATCH TRAILER

Do you have any favorite prison subgenre films? Please leave a comment and let us know!



Editor-In-Chief of The Grindhouse Cinema Database/Furious Cinema contributor. Pete is a rabid movie geek who enjoys everything from wild n' crazy exploitation/cult flix to big budget mainstream classics. His other interests include: graphic design, cartooning and music.

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2 Responses

  1. bob says:

    this wasnt an accurate list… some good ones were left out

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