John Carpenter's 'Escape From New York' Is an A-Grade B-Movie

by J.C. Macek III

17 April 2015

Playing a one-eyed special forces soldier, Kurt Russell has to save an inexplicably British president of America from a dystopian New York in this early '80s classic from director John Carpenter.
 
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Escape From New York

Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Tom Atkins, Charles Cyphers, Season Hubley, Ox Baker, John Carpenter, Debra Hill, Jamie Lee Curtis

(Avco Embassy Pictures / Goldcrest Films)
US DVD: 21 Apr 2015
UK DVD: Import

The most striking thing about watching Escape From New York on Blu-ray is how amazingly the film’s special effects stand up to the test of time, even (and especially) under the unforgiving scrutiny of high definition.

Like many, I first saw the classic 1981 John Carpenter action film on a cathode ray tube fed by either a cable broadcast or a VHS tape. Sure, the effects worked for the film on that medium, but they failed to really inspire the awe that they must have in the theater. That awe is back on Blu-ray.

Then again, it probably takes a deluxe DVD or Blu-ray package not only to appreciate some of these effects, but also to even realize that many of these are, in fact, special effects at all. Scream! Factory’s 2015 Blu-ray release of Escape From New York is just that “deluxe package” for which fans of the film have been clamoring. The two-disc “Collector’s Edition” truly lives up to its name with brand new high definition scans of the inter-positive, struck from the original negative for a beautiful 1080p experience. The existing commentaries by director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell, as well as producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves, are both present and supplemented with a new commentary by actress Adrienne Barbeau and director of photography Dean Cundey.

The second disc is absolutely packed with extras, including both a behind-the-scenes still gallery and a promotional materials still gallery (both of which, sadly, are now rarities on new releases), theatrical trailers, the famed deleted opening scene, and a documentary about the film. New bonus features include new interviews with actors, photographer Kim Gottlieb-Walker and co-composer Alan Howarth. Most welcome of all, however, is the new documentary called “Big Challenges in Little Manhattan: The Visual Effects of Escape From New York”, which reveals what “special effects” were at the time, and just how the filmmakers achieved such things in a pre-CGI era.

True, 1981 was a long time ago, and the occasional trick and trap appears dated and commonplace. However, other effects actually required Carpenter’s commentary and the new documentary to even suggest that they were effects at all. A desolate Manhattan skyline looming over a thick, dark prison wall is proven to be an incredibly realistic matte painting—by none other than a pre-Terminator James Cameron—resting atop a dam near Los Angeles. A helicopter passing over New York harbor proves to be an animation in front of a miniature. The miniature of Manhattan is strikingly convincing; in that less than a week of filming actually took place in New York, this miniature was used much more often than one might think.

The genius of John Carpenter includes his subtlety in composition. The man has always known that the best special effects are invisible and never detract from the story.

That story (by Carpenter and friend Nick Castle, who played Michael Myers in the original Halloween), in spite of the fact that it takes place in “the future” world of 1997, is still enjoyable today. When the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) is forced to eject from a crashing Air Force One, he lands in a desolate, futuristic Manhattan that is used by an American police state as an island prison for irredeemable villains. War veteran turned criminal Snake Plissken (Russell) is enlisted by the Police Commissioner (Lee Van Cleef) to rescue the President. The reward for success is freedom; the punishment for failure is death, courtesy of timed explosives injected into his blood stream with a 22 hour limit.

The excitement, tension and suspense are all there, but the cabal of crazies that populate the now anarchic New York really sell the film. The city actually looks both stunningly dirty and realistic with Max Max-style gangs presiding over it, due in part to the fact that the city blocks used for shooting, located in East Saint Louis, had been burned out during a massive 1976 fire. The self-proclaimed “Duke of New York” is played by Isaac Hayes, while a crazy cab driver who befriends Snake is played by Ernest Borgnine. Harry Dean Stanton portrays an old friend of Snake’s called “Brain” while Season Hubley and Adrienne Barbeau (now ex-wives of Russell and Carpenter, respectively) play two strong women in the city.

The progression of the film is action packed and thrilling, but also often outlandish and over-the-top. However, Carpenter has such skill with balancing this type of film that even the craziest moments seem both deliciously fun and somehow even believable. It doesn’t hurt that the cast takes the film seriously, all the while maintaining a sense of humor and fun, such that the final film, quite simply, works.

In the hands of another director, perhaps this would not have been the case, and we would have been left with the B-Movie that Escape From New York might, on the surface, seem to be. But this is John Carpenter, the man who, for decades, made the unbelievable believable and the ridiculous plausible. It may not be much of a surprise that film’s like 1983’s Christine (based on the successful Stephen King novel), 1979’s Elvis (a TV movie about one of the biggest stars of all time) or 1984’s Starman (a romance more than a sci-fi film) have all been considered successful and acclaimed, but a look at Carpenter’s other films bears out his success further.

Dark Star (1984) is a film about a spaced-out planet bombing crew with a beach ball alien on board. That film was his break into Hollywood. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) was an intentional “exploitation film” that became an entrancing and multi-layered drama and social commentary. Halloween (1978) was a movie about a possibly supernatural slasher killer who we hardly ever see, and it redefined a genre. The Fog (1980) is about a crew of pirate zombies taking revenge on the descendants of a California town who robbed them; it became one of the most enduring films of its kind, inspiring many imitators. Finally, and perhaps most exemplary, They Live (1988) is about a homeless guy (played by wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper) who finds a pair of magic sunglasses that reveals an alien invasion and conspiracy that has invaded every part of the media, including what we see and hear. That ridiculous sounding concept resulted in overwhelmingly positive reviews, with critics calling it a “masterpiece” and a “wake-up call to the world”.

All of those films became critically acclaimed, successful and influential films. Is it any wonder that Carpenter’s own (admittedly silly-sounding) idea of New York as a futuristic prison and one crazy, invading one-eyed special forces soldier intent on saving the (British accented) US President story somehow manages to work?

It does make a great deal of sense, and Scream! Factory’s near-Criterion quality Blu-ray release is the best proof yet of how well this works. The recent trend in home video has been to release bare bones DVDs and Blu-rays and, even if quality extras existed in previous editions, they are eliminated for current releases. Scream! Factory has been just as guilty, but it may be reversing the trend with this excellent release. From the sight and sound of the main feature to all the bonuses that round out the discs and enhance an already quality and fun movie, this is the collection you’ll want if you’re ever stranded on an island, Manhattan or otherwise.

Escape From New York

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