'Cell 213': supernatural prison movie

Cell 213. (Supplied)

Cell 213. (Supplied)

Jim Slotek, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:47 AM ET

Prisons whose cells include a doorway to Hell? If such things existed, you know our PM would be all over them for his let's-build-more-prisons program.

As it is, it's icing on the suspense cake in Cell 213, Stephen Kay's respectably-tense gene-splice of the prison-movie genre and supernatural horror.

Such hybridization has a practical purpose. This is a Canadian movie with a Canadian indie budget, so, FX-wise, one can't expect Poltergeist. (We get, in fact, only one brief glimpse of the infernal abyss, and what do you want to bet that blew the FX budget?)

You can only go so far with several scenes of the Devil's own handwriting being scratched mysteriously on a cell wall. So Cell 213 fills the narrative spaces with some prison-movie tropes -- including an intimidating black guy who wants to make the protagonist his "bitch" -- and some nifty and informative scenes in the prison morgue about gas-filled corpses seeming to breathe and how one properly disperses embalming fluid through a cadaver's circulatory system.

Kay gets the most out of the morbid, wrapping this rather slight plot in an atmosphere so tight it distracts us from loose ends and credulity-straining exposition.

As we meet lawyer Michael Gray (Eric Balfour), he's on the verge of beating the rap for a child rapist/murderer, taking a celebratory moment to have sex with a colleague in a washroom and take a phonecall from his wife during.

Nice guy.

His client, however, is well past being overjoyed by his impending release. Apparently haunted, he kills himself in his lawyer's presence, setting it up to look like Gray had murdered him. No sooner than you can say "fresh meat," our superstar lawyer is the new kid in the prison yard at South River State Penitentiary.

Sadistically overjoyed at having him in their care are the oddly sinister warden (Bruce Greenwood) and the brutish head guard Ray (Michael Rooker).

Discovering that Gray has an abnormal fear of death (as opposed to the normal kind), the warden naturally assigns the rookie to morgue duty. There, he's taken under the wing of an old inmate a la Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption, who counsels him on the finer points of avoiding rape and embalming a fresh corpse (two lessons that dovetail neatly in the last act of the film).

Meanwhile, Deborah Valente is along as a tough corrections official looking into rumours of brutality in South River, and becomes convinced of Gray's innocence (I mean, just look at those blue eyes).

The real action, though, remains in Cell 213, whose significance is finally explained by a prison priest (Boyd Banks) as a test for the wicked through which they can enter either Heaven or Hell.

In other words, it's a hell of a place to incarcerate a lawyer.

Give credit for chutzpah to the filmmakers for leaving Cell 213 open-ended enough to allow for a sequel. Maybe they could have a contest over who next to throw into Hell's holding cell.


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