FANGO Flashback: “ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK” (1981)
Tired of waiting for John Carpenter to step behind the camera again? Weary of all those pathetic remakes of the master of horror’s greatest works? Then experience theatrically for yourself Carpenter in his prime as the filmmaker’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK begins a week-long engagement in a new, pristine high-def DCP format at New York City’s IFC Center (323 Sixth Avenue at 3rd Street; 212-924-7771) from Friday, July 19 through Thursday, July 25. Expect to see more cities play host to ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK all year long from Rialto Pictures.
Released in 1981 by indie distributor Avco Embassy during a season of genre blockbusters (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, CLASH OF THE TITANS, FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, THE ROAD WARRIOR, etc.), ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK managed to hold its own at the box office. The film also garnered praise from critics (including the NEW YORK TIMES!) and fans alike and remains one of Carpenter’s most popular and enduring works.
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK’s set-up is pure genius. In a frightening vision of 1997, crime has gotten so terrible that New York City has been turned into a walled maximum-security prison. Criminals go in; no one comes out. Unfortunately, Air Force One crashes into this concrete hellhole, and the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) becomes the hostage of the self-proclaimed Duke of New York (the imposing Isaac Hayes of SOUTHPARK, here in full-pimp regalia). Double-crossing security chief Lee Van Cleef enlists criminal and former war hero Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell, in perhaps his most famous role) to go into the rotten Big Apple and rescue the President. If he succeeds, Snake will be pardoned and the deadly toxins injected into his body neutralized. Oh, and he’s only got 24 hours… Once on the inside, Plissken’s aided in his quest by a motley group of characters, played by the wonderful likes of Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton and Adrienne Barbeau.
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK introduces one of the genre’s most iconic characters in loner Plissken, cut from the same cloth as Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name (from Sergio Leone’s DOLLARS trilogy). Oddly, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK never plays like the kick-ass action flick it could have been. Plissken finds the President pretty easily (and with lots of help) and spends most of the film just running away from the bad guys. The film’s major action set pieces (the gladiatorial battle between Plissken and Tor Johnson lookalike Ox Baker and the final pursuit over the mined “69th Street Bridge”) certainly couldn’t compete with that same summer’s Indiana Jones and 007 adventures. That’s because Carpenter, who dreamt up ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK during the turmoil of the Watergate era, had other things on his counter-culture mind rather than a simple thrill ride. The screenplay (co-written by Nick Castle; yes, the Shape from HALLOWEEN) brims with satire (NYC as a futuristic Alcatraz), irony (the switched cassette tape MacGuffin) and political subversivesness (note the President’s casual dismissal of Plissken in favor of a good televised close-up at the end). Produced for a meager $6 million, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK rates as a grindhouse movie with a brain, not some mindless popcorn movie. Elevating the picture further, Dean Cundey’s atmospheric nighttime photography and the gritty production design of Joe Alves do a stupendous job of turning Fun City (played convincingly by St. Louis and other metropolitan stand-ins) into a dystopian nightmare. And, yes, New York was that bad during the 1970s and early ’80s.
On the one hand, it’s a shame that Plissken never found his franchise potential. But after 1996’s botched Carpenter-Russell reunion ESCAPE FROM L.A., perhaps we’re better off watching the character here ultimately walk off into the bleak, dark night as opposed to becoming just another dopey action hero.
(For more on ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and maestro Carpenter, see our FANGORIA LEGENDS: JOHN CARPENTER special magazine, which you can get here.