Infamous Philly prison becomes filmmaker’s dream hellhole

Hollywood has taken over the old Holmesburg prison this month, where some of the genre’s most iconic stars are filming  “Death House.” 

Directed by Harrison Smith,  the gory flick has topped a few fanzine lists as most anticipated horror movie of the year.

The $1.5 million feature is set in a secret prison where the world’s worst killers have been corralled – until a facilitywide prison break results in gore so graphic it prompted producer Rick Finkelstein to ask

Smith: “Are you sure about this?”

The tagline on the movie poster: “Hell isn’t a word. It’s a sentence.”

Check out other Hollywood movies starring Philly lock-ups

It might seem weird to shoot a movie in the same space where real horrors have happened – riots in the 1970s, controversial decades-long medical experiments on inmates, rapes so routine they spurred a city investigation, and the May 1973 stabbing deaths of Warden Patrick Curran and Deputy Warden Robert Fromhold.

“It was a very dangerous prison,” said Lorenzo North, president of Local 159, the union that represents the city’s correctional officers.

But the 120-year-old prison, which officially closed in 1995, has become such a popular location for movie and music video shoots that barely a month goes by without arty millennials wheeling cameras and sound equipment past its rusting gates. Against the Current, a Poughkeepsie pop-rock band, shot a music video there about a month ago (link: https://youtu.be/bcvuYNhfj-c), and State of Emergency, a sci-fi thriller, is set to film there in May, prisons spokeswoman Shawn Hawes said.

Smith attributed its appeal to its “really cool” central rotunda and its creepy, crumbling interior, which remains uncharted by the general public. Stand too long in its dark corridors and your pulse will race.“It has a really unique look,” Smith said. “People recognize other prisons from haunted attractions. But this one, they don’t know.”

On the Death House set last week, the prison’s brutal past seemed as unreal as the fake blood and scars on the “rioting inmates” who nibbled soft pretzels as they waited in the gymnasium to be called in front of the cameras. Most preferred to swap stories about their cinematic conquests than dwell on art imitating life.

“I played the henchman in ‘My Uncle John Is a Zombie!,’ an 1820s cannibal in ‘Belly Timber,’ a drugged-out guy in ‘LogJam,’ and a ghost that comes out of a storage room in ‘Hellementary: An Education in Death,’” said actor Solon Tsangaras, 56, who drove more than three hours from his Afton, N.Y., home to be a rioting inmate.

“I don’t know why I always get typecast, but I do,” he joked, stretching out his tattooed arms and shaking his shaggy, coal-black hair.

While most extras were chasing that Hollywood buzz, some were actual Philadelphia correctional officers. Smith asked Hawes to send a few real guards to the set for cameos in the film, and she picked a dozen from a list set to be honored for perfect attendance.

This week, Smith, a Poconos native who now lives in Lancaster with his microbiologist wife and their 7-year-old daughter, will head to California for one more week of filming on a soundstage. Death House, meanwhile, will likely be released this fall or in early 2017, Finkelstein said.

With its who’s-who cast of horror stars, the producer is hoping the distributors will fight over it.

“They’ve never seen what we’re bringing them; it’s not just a slasher pic – but believe me, there is a lot of slashing in it,” Finkelstein said. “This will not only break horror-movie box-office records, but it will redefine the genre.”

And the old Holmesburg prison?

The prisons’ K-9 unit, fire unit and emergency response team, which are based there, will continue their training, unbothered by the Hollywood hustle. Workers eventually will tidy up the gymnasium and other less-crumbly spaces, which they’ll use in July for inmate intake in case the Democratic National Convention results in mass arrests, Hawes said.

Otherwise, the city gets no money from such location shoots, and so has no money to stop the bits of plaster that occasionally rain down from the cavernous ceilings.

So the prison will return to its derelict anonymity… at least until the next movie shoot.

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