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

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.

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
Length: 98 minutes
Studio: Avco Embassy Pictures / Goldcrest Films
Year: 1981
Distributor: Shout! Factory
MPAA Rating: R
UK Release Date: Import
US Release Date: 2015-04-21

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.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

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Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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