First off, Prison of the Psychotic Damned (also know as Prison of the Psychotic Dead) is a great title. The Psychotic Damned would be enough for most flicks. Prison of the Psychotic or Prison of the Damned, both equally fine, if not particularly grabbing titles. But there's something about the pile of all the terms together, jamming all these loaded terms together, but cutting it just before it lapses into parody (Bloody Cursed Torture Asylum of the Homicidally Psychotic Hungry Damned for Beyond the Grave) that promises solid horror entertainment.
And, for the most part, PPD manages to deliver on that promise. Partially because of the occasional flashes of real talent that went into this low budget shocker; but partially because the makers of PPD had a secret weapon: one of the most photogenic horror sets in recent history. PPD tells the story of a team of paranormal investigators who, in order to investigate reports of supernatural activity, spend a single hellish night in Buffalo's long-abandoned Central Terminal railway station. Most of the film appears to have been shot on location and, as far as sets go, Central Terminal ranks up there with The Shining's Overlook Hotel and Session 9's Danvers Hospital. Once an awe-inspiring art deco shrine to the romance and power of train travel, Central Terminal fell into disuse and decay. The faded grandeur of the station is powerfully evocative of past times, of people and dreams gone – in short, the place just looks haunted. Furthermore, the epic scope of the structure dwarfs the actors, as if the haunted station, without the help of special effects scares, was threatening to swallow them. Every shot the camera captures within Central Terminal can't help but capture the station's gothic, spooky atmosphere.
Though most of this film's punch comes from the great set, its story isn't without its charms. The filmmakers wisely decided to stick with a reliable, but still flexible formula. Sure, we've seen paranormal investigators get what's coming to them since the Wise's superlative The Haunting (actually, I've seen a few great silent short films from the 1920s that use the same plot, but let's stay canonical for this discussion), but the basic formula allows enough room for interpretation that a clever filmmaker can use its conventions as a frame without being caught in a rut. In fact, the film's weakest points are when it rambles away from the plot. For example, a short intro focusing on a particularly busty character flipping out in her flophouse apartment seems overlong. (This particular scene is only redeemed by the gratuitous nudity it involves and by the appearance of regular commenter and all around nice guy Screamin' Cattleworks – ladies, calm down, Screamin' Cattleworks is not the one who gets gratuitously nude.)
For the most part, however, the film works well enough that the budgetary restraints and the strictly serviceable acting don't become bothersome. Well enough, in fact, that many of the scares are genuine. The director even knows when to pass on the obvious scare in favor of building up the tension and teasing the audience just slightly. In the hands of an incompetent director, tricks like that fall on their face. But here, the succeed more often then they fail.
PPD is not a great horror flick – except that one scene with Screamin' Cattleworks that will change forever the way you think about male nurses wrestling with half-naked women. It is the work of devoted and talented people with, perhaps, more genre knowledge and moxie than actual movie-making chops. Still, there's enough good stuff here to keep the interest of the viewer and the movie never feels like a slight throw away. I suspect the viewer feels a little of the earnest intention of the filmmakers: they want to make something fun, and a little scary, that didn't suck. That's as noble and honest a goal as you're likely to find among contemporary filmmakers. Using my recently revised Butterflies of India Film Rating System, I'm giving Prison of the Psychotic Damned a fine, if not socks rockin', Common Cerulean. Yeah, it ain't no monarch or nothing, but it is still a butterfly and that's not half bad.