Escape from New York: 40 years Later
Can you believe it’s been 40 years since my favorite movie made its debut? Like the ending verse of 80’s Brit pop duo, Tears for Fears' "Head over Heels” goes: "funny how tiiimmme, fliiieees"!
The year was 1981, Avco Embassy was coming off a high off previously released low budgeted horror flicks like Scanners and The Howling, and prior to that Phantasm and The Fog, which the latter was directed by John Carpenter. Avco had few and farther films, yet they had one final trick up their sleeve.
In what is seen as one of Director John Carpenter’s most iconic films, 1981's Escape from New York, is a dystopian drama set in what was perceived as the near future at the time. The crime rate has risen exponentially and the paramilitary United States Police Force, has sealed off Manhattan as this massive penal colony where criminals are deported to where "there are only prisoners, and the worlds they have made." "Once you go in, you don't come out" according to Halloween actress, Jamie Lee Curtis' opening narration.
A former lieutenant now turned career criminal, SD "Snake" Plissken is captured and made an offer he can't refuse: Rescue the President of the United States within the Maximum Security, have his arteries blown out!
Watching Escape on the silver screen was one of the best cinematic experiences, I can recall as a kid growing up in the 80's. The dystopian scenarios and premise are reminiscent to a Comicbook, most notably, Deathlok from 1974's Astonishing Tales (Marvel)with certain similarities, both share a military career background, they are Antiheroes with a decaying New York City as the backdrop. Hell, there is even an issue where Deathlok fights off a gang of Subway cannibals, whereas in Escape from New York, Plissken encounters The Crazies, a pack of underground cannibals who emerge at night in search of fresh flesh! Coincidence? Not according to Deathlok's creator, Rich Buckler who mentioned how 80's and 90's films Sci Fi films: Escape, Robocop, The Terminator and Universal Soldier was inspired by the titular Cyborg antihero. And his claims have merit.(Marvel's Astonishing Tales #32 1974)
Ironically, it was my love for Deathlok's dystopian worldbuilding, that inspired the preadolescent artist in me to draw my own comic, it featured a tough mercenary who was fighting dome-shaped soldiers within a ruined city, and guess what? He wore an eye patch! Well, that was coincidental, which gravitated me to check out this movie after laying eyes on the Subway art poster. As for the movie itself, its atmospheric in scope and has more than enough originality to become its own concept. The pacing is adequate and the performances by a who’s who of familiar actors like, Adrianne Barbaeu, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Van Cleef, Harry Dean Stanton, Donald Pleasence, Soul legend Isaac Hayes as the Duke of New York and of course Kurt Russell coming off his previous TV film with Carpenter, Elvis.
Not only did Snake Plissken erase that wholesome Disney image from Russell's filmography, but it was responsible for making Snake such an imposing figure. Russell went through a few Thrift stores and Punk boutiques to form the signature character's look including the eye patch. It was also Kurt's idea for sounding like Clint Eastwood to play off from Lee Van Cleef since both Eastwood and Van Cleef starred in Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns. Carpenter had originally intended for Plissken to be an Eastwood archetype, but it was the Studio who suggested either Charles Bronson or Tommy Lee Jones for the part, with the latter (fortunately) turning down the role, they settled for Russell who John Carpenter originally had in mind. While during a press junket for Escape from New York, Kurt compared his iconic Antihero to " The Exterminator and Darth Vader " which comes off as a throwaway comment, but kind of get what Russell was doing, when promoting his most remembered character.
Plissken is the perfect Antihero of cinema. He's an unapologetic badass who is literally the first "bad guy" in cinema I rooted for! Sanke doesn't trust authority especially when it comes to the hypocrisy of the United States government, and a bit misanthropic, however, when the rubber meets the road, Plissken is capable of showing a modicum of compassion, as seen during the 69th bridge scene where he pleads for a grieving Maggie to come with him. There is this calm nonchalant demeanor about him just by watching the scene where Hauk threatens to "kick his ass out of the world " with a handcuffed Plissken reaching for one of the Warden's cigarettes, I had an inkling what this character was all about.
Things become more interesting when Hauk attempts to persuade him into going to the No Man's land by explaining the dire situation with a sarcastic response: "President of what" followed by “Get a new President" and "I don't give a fuck about your war, or your President. "
In my opinion, some of the best scenes were the dialog exchanges between Plissken and Hauk, like for example, when Hauk lies about Snake being inoculated with a "strong antitoxin" until Dr. Cronenberg blows his spot: " tell him!" Hauk comes clean with the timed charges lodged in his arteries as means of "insurance " in case Snake has a change of heart,"No more Hartford Summit,no more Snake Plissken.."
The gullfire scene albeit short, was one of the major highlights from "Escape " and this is attributed to a model landscape that resembles an abandoned New York City, Jim Cameron (Yes, that "Jim Cameron "!) came on board as Director of Photography providing stunning visuals as the glider stealthily makes its approach into the Supermax. Other practical effects that stood out was the wire frame 3D effect of the cityscape within the glider. Demonstrating the DIY aspect and how filmmakers use ingenuity when working under a tight budgeted production.
Aside from the film's nihilistic premise, you can tell that John and Nick (Castle) were dialing up the screenplay to levels of bizarreness with moments of comedic timing that grasps the point of absurdity such as Brain’s response to Snake after being called “Harrold”, the ongoing line: "I heard you were dead." There is one scene where Plissken walks into a theater where the President's tracking bracelet is located, only to find an on-stage Drag chorus performing "Everybody's coming to New York". And what's crazier, is what he assumed was the POTUS, is some drunken whacked out bum played by one of Carpenter’s trope actors, Buck Flower
While Snake's introduction comes off simple yet effective, it is both Romero and of course, Hayes' Duke of New York who really stood out during their first appearances. Romero played by Frank Doubleday (The Gangsta that shot a young Kimberly Richards in the chest.) who looks and acts like a Zombie and it’s of no mere coincidence since, the character as with Dr. Cronenberg, were named after other fellow Horror Directors and protégées, David Cronenberg and George A Romero,. "The Crazies" reference, is another homage to Romero.
Issac Hayes’ Duke has fewer lines of dialogue compared to his co-stars, but he’s a certified OG when delivering his speech at the makeshift coliseum.
“They sent in their best man, and when we roll across the 69th Street bridge tomorrow, on our way to freedom, we're going to have their best man leading the way - from the neck up!”
I would be remiss if I did not mention how incredible EFNY's soundtrack was and still is! John Carpenter and Alan Howarth wrote and composed one of the absolute best soundtracks in action cinema!
Most of the scores differentiate from the other despite its synthesizer approach, from the main intro/outro to the high tense finale, I cannot think of any score that disappointed me. Hell, even The Duke had his own theme which sounds a bit like Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper".
Howarth utilized steel percussion drums when scoring the fast paced "Across the Bridge"
However, one stood out was this ominous score; "Engulfed Cathedral " aka the Gullfire scene, that had a chilling dystopian tone as Snake pilots the glider into a dark urban void of the unknown while making snark quips toward Hauk. Carpenter is more than just some Director; he is a Swiss Army Knife filmmaker!
John makes great use of cinematography despite budget constraints, there's a cool trick where Remhe played by Tom Atkins, is inside the communications booth below the Statue of Liberty that pans to the USPF's main base which is shot on an entirely different location i.e. the Sherman Oaks dam that gave off a futuristic aesthetic however, some exterior scenes were filmed on Liberty Island who Carpenter boasted: "We were the first film company in history allowed to shoot on Liberty Island at the Statue of Liberty at night."
John and the location manager decided to film mist of EFNY within East St. Louis because it was filled with old buildings "that exist in New York now, and [that] have that seedy run-down quality" that the team was looking for as the entire neighborhoods burned out in 1976 due to a massive urban fire.
Escape from New York is one of the most ambitious sci fi films I have ever seen. It is neither grandiose nor pretentious, yet a clever thriller that incorporates grounded fantasy, satire, action, and a modicum of horror tropes, which is Carpenter’s signature.
So how does John Carpenter’s Escape from New York hold up after forty years?
After watching Escape while it is still available on the HBO MAX streaming platform, it’s a thrilling and innovative movie more than worthy of its cult status. I’m not sure how well received it would be during these times, I mean how would the proponents of the MeToo movement, Plissken not interfering to stop an attempted gang rape? Then there's Brain referring to Native Americans as "savages", and then there's Kurt's off-color commentary in the DVD edition! 😆
The set pieces are engaging, with Carpenter and company have a good idea what 1997 would look like. The egg-shaped crash pod bears the Presidential seal, while the M16 assault rifles the USPF's weapon of choice, bears a more skeletal look once the barrel is removed. Other unique weapons with a cool retrofitted look are Snake's signature Mac 10 Sub machinegun with scope and silencer and the snub nose 38, also features a sniper scope.
You would think Maggie would not miss when pointing that thing at Duke during the bridge scene.
The technology is credible and when you look at the President's bracelet, its practically a Smart watch that monitors your heart rate which nearly everyone is wearing nowadays!
In regard to foreshadowing, there’s a few predictions that come to mind one especially, is the hijacking of Air Force One, where an Anarchist had taken over the plane after killing the pilots, but prior to crashing the plane into a building she broadcasts her manifesto, that's not just some empty screed, as fanatical as her actions were, she was right about America being a "racist Police State" especially when it comes to current events.
I'm sure some moviegoer would confuse her with Antifa. Of course, whenever I watch that scene, I am reminded of the horrific September 11th attacks which occurred Twenty Years ago.
I actually owned the movie tie-in novelization written by Mike McQuay and can recall several scenes that didn’t make the final cut of the film, such as the Federal Reserve Depository robbery that results in Snake's incarceration. (Which is now featured as extras on the Blu Ray and DVD releases.) What’s cool about the novel, was how it offers motivation and backstory to Snake and Hauk – both who are disillusioned war veterans, how Snake lost his eye during the Battle for Leningrad in World War III, how Hauk became warden of New York, and Hauk's quest to find his crazy son who lives somewhere in the prison. Also, how the West Coast became this no-man's land, and the country's population is gradually being driven crazy by nerve gas because of World War III.
During a post pandemic era, the national crime rate has increased especially in New York City. This may be attributed to loss of employment and less lenient judicial actions i.e., bail reform or earlier release from incarceration. New York was practically a prison during the Coronavirus pandemic well over a year.
The legacy and impact from Escape from New York, is engraved in popular culture.
Over the course of time, there were countless rip-offs, (Bronx Warriors, No Escape, Lockout and After the fall of New York) and homages such as Cyber City Odeo, Solid Snake (Metal Gear Solid) Robert Rodriguez’s Machete and DC Comics' Suicide Squad just to name a few.
Author William Gibson of Neuromancer credits EFNY for introducing the Subgenre known as "Cyberpunk " ironically, due to a throwaway line about Snake piloting a glider plane to Leningrad, Russia but for a moment it worked like the best science fiction, where a casual reference can imply a lot.". It was thanks to the warm critical reception of Escape, that made Kurt Russell into a action star prior to Arnold Schwarzenegger not not Sly Stallone whose Nighthawks, premiered three months prior to Escape from New York.
While Kurt and Carpenter share a great modicum of credit for EFNY, this Cult classic would not have been possible without the collaborative efforts from James Cameron, Larry Franco, Joe Alves, Barry Bernardi, Alan Howarth, and trailblazer, Debra Hill who at the time, was one of Hollywood's best-known and popular female producers. (1950-2005)
Despite what can be considered “outdated” special effects in a sea of CGI films and ham-fisted dialogue, John Carpenter’s Escape from New York is unequivocally a masterclass in do-it-yourself filmmaking. After forty years, its still a “trip worth taking.”