Escape from New York (1981) d. John Carpenter (USA)
As the second of their two-picture deal with Avco-Embassy (following The Fog), producer Debra Hill and writer/director Carpenter set their eye on realizing a sci-fi/action script he had written in the mid-’70s, with the entire island of Manhattan having been turned into a maximum security prison with a 50-foot detainment wall built around its perimeter. Into this scenario Carpenter and co-screenwriter Nick Castle (who had played “The Shape” in 1978’s breakout Halloween) dropped ruthless and charismatic mercenary Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) and a wild, do-or-die plot about rescuing the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) after Air Force One is hijacked and crash-landed in the Big Apple. On a budget of $6 million (substantial, but still smallish for the project’s ambitious scale), the creative team – with special nods to production designer Joe Alves, cinematographer Dean Cundey, and one of the coolest ensemble casts EVER – emerged with a critical and box office hit . . . and an all-time iconic character in “Call me Snake” Plissken.
Escape was a significant moment in Carpenter’s career, in that it marked his third consecutive financial success and positioned him as a truly bankable auteur. (Ironically, his subsequent effort, The Thing, 1982’s reimagining of John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”, essentially destroyed that reputation when it died a horrible, painful death in the review columns and at the box office.) It also marked the true beginning of Russell’s adult film career, with the eye-patched antihero forever changing Hollywood’s image of the artist formerly known as “the Disney kid,” and similarly launched Hill and Cundey into the big leagues.
The film was shot primarily in St. Louis (the city had suffered a devastating fire in 1976 which provided Carpenter with the appropriately debilitated locations he and Alves were looking for) with other scenes picked up at the USC film library (the director’s not-quite alma mater) and a few L.A. studio shots. Future Oscar-winning siblings Dennis and Robert Skotak devised numerous inventive – and cheap – visual effects, including the multitude of painted skyline matte shots and miniatures, with the participation of another member of the Roger Corman factory: a young hotshot by the name of “Jim Cameron.”
Essentially the B-movie equivalent of a ’70s all-star disaster pic, the cast list reads like a dream catalog of affordable charisma: In addition to Russell and Pleasence, we are treated to memorable performances from Adrienne Barbeau (Carpenter’s bride at the time), Harry Dean Stanton, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Cyphers, Tom Atkins, Frank Doubleday, Isaac Hayes, and George “Buck” Flower. (Russell’s bride at the time, Season Hubley, who had played Priscilla opposite his Carpenter-directed turn in the TV-movie Elvis, makes a “special appearance” as the “Girl in Chock Full o’ Nuts.”)
It was apparently spaghetti western star Van Cleef’s presence as Russell’s autocratic nemesis that helped inspire Snake’s Eastwood-like stage whisper and laconic style. Now, I’ll go on record as being the one fella who never quite bought Russell here as a true tough guy – he always seems to be playing at it, which still works fine for the exaggerated scenario, but it’s still kind of a joke that the viewer is in on. (By contrast, his turn as MacReady in The Thing is much less mannered and forced, and as a result, more genuinely masculine and heroic.) It doesn’t make his Snake any less entertaining, and in many ways, it remains a welcome send-up of the iconic one-note Bronson and Clint performances of the previous decade.
Escape is no stranger to the U.S. home video market, with two previous DVD releases from MGM and a 1994 laserdisc presentation, so the question arises whether it’s worth the high-def, two-disc upgrade recently made available by Shout! Factory. The answer is a resounding “yes,” not only for the bounty of supplemental materials but for the breathtaking new 2K scan of the film’s inter-positive, struck from the original negative. Now you can literally count the chandelier crystals dangling from The Duke of New York’s (Hayes) sweet ride or the hairs on Slag’s (professional wrestler Ox Baker) back during his squared circle brawl with Snake. (Apparently Baker had a few problems pulling his blows until Russell placed a spiked bat near the big man’s privates and warned him in no uncertain terms that there would be consequences if the excessive enthusiasm were to continue.)
In addition to the two commentary tracks previously available on MGM’s Collector’s Edition DVD (Carpenter & Russell’s 1994 laserdisc chat, Hill & Alves from 2003), S!F unveils a newly recorded third: a marvelous chat with Barbeau and Cundey, expertly moderated by Sean Clark. At the risk of appearing biased (we both contribute regularly to HorrorHound), Clark does a marvelous job of provoking conversation and stimulating memories from the participants while occasionally dropping the fanboy factoid into the mix for flavor. It’s clear that he’s done his research and asks for confirmation of rumors and reports, and both actress and DP are up for the ride.
Cundey speaks at length of his acquisition of newer, faster lenses that could work with limited light, as well as the then-new Panaglide camera (Panavision’s version of the SteadiCam) which allowed him to float through the destroyed landscapes lit only by flickering fires. For her part, Barbeau reveals great affinity for the role of Maggie, a tough and complicated heroine and – with the exception of Hubley’s brief appearance and the uncredited Jamie Lee Curtis’ introductory voice-over – the film’s only significant female character. She also reveals how she created Maggie’s signature hair clip from the breast bone of an actual turkey carcass to remain in keeping with the apocalyptic setting! (The one significant bungle that all three commit is saying that Van Cleef was near the end of his career and died shortly after filming, when the actor actually lived an additional eight years, and shot seven more movies and the short-lived television series The Master.)
|"I heard you were dead."|
For the second disc, we are treated to numerous extras ported over from the previous Collector’s Edition DVD, including the 22-minute “Return to Escape from New York” featurette recorded in 2003, which offers a nice – if brief, considering the film’s standing as a cult classic – retrospective glance by several of the major players. Hill is particularly eloquent, echoing many of the thoughts expressed in her commentary track. Also available is the original bank robbery sequence that opened the film until Carpenter realized that its inclusion had the strangely undesired effect of humanizing his main character (Snake refuses to leave his partner behind and is arrested as a result) and slowing down the action. Theatrical trailers and photo galleries of behind-the-scenes material, posters, and lobby cards, offer plenty of nostalgic eye candy.
But let’s get on to the new stuff, the best of which comes courtesy of Viddywell Productions, comprised of Clark, Andrew Kasch, and Buz Wallick, who serve up a trio of stellar featurettes. “Big Challenges in Little Manhattan,” sits us down with the Skotak brothers, who discuss their humble beginnings on Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars, and how Cameron already exhibited the vision and bullheadedness that would ultimately lead to his status as Oscar-winning “King of the World.” (The two have subsequently provided effects for most of JC’s features.) “Scoring the Escape” gains us access to composer Alan Howarth’s studio, where he not only talks engagingly about his amiable working relationship with Carpenter, but also takes us through the various soundtrack releases, from vinyl to CD to live downloadable performances. (There’s also an interesting, unexplained clip of the credits where Howarth’s first name is misspelled with an additional “L”.)
VP’s final offering is “On Set with John Carpenter: The Images of Escape from New York,” a 10-minute chat with official set photographer Kim Gottlieb-Walker, whose book by the same name is now available. The shutterbug is a terrific guest, celebrating the early convivial days of the Carpenter crew and bemoaning the current state of affairs where everyone on set has an iPhone and is uploading crap photos to the web.
We come now to the less-stellar but still-enjoyable new extras, the first of which being “I am Taylor” with Joe Unger, who plays Plissken’s unfortunate partner in crime in the deleted opening. Not only unnecessary in the extreme since the actor doesn’t even appear in the finished film and – no offense, Joe – whose status doesn’t merit the kind of attention as, say, Kevin Costner being trimmed out of The Big Chill, but the questions (asked via text breaks by producer/director Walt Olsen) are pretty inane, querying whether Unger wishes he hadn’t been cut out or what he thought of working with Russell. To his credit, Unger is a pretty no-nonsense hombre and dismisses most of the questions with a “pshaw, just glad to be still alive and working” attitude. The final morsel is an interview with genre veteran David DeCoteau who talks about “My Night on Set” when Carpenter and Co. did a few pick-up shots in L.A. Besides the director’s natural exuberance, there’s not much to the story and the segment is poorly shot with its subject planted in front of a green screen – not a greenscreen, but an actual green screen – and poorly miked. Unsurprisingly, no credit is given for the interview.
Escape from New York is available now in a 2-disc Collector’s Edition Blu-ray from Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE.
Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine