23rd Nov2018

‘Escape From New York: Collectors Edition’ Blu-ray Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine, Tom Atkins | Written by John Carpenter, Nick Castle | Directed by John Carpenter

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In the early 1980s, New York was grindhouse heaven: a hell of neon iniquity, with every alleyway harbouring some new nameless vice. Horror had a field day: the likes of Basket Case, The Driller Killer and Maniac captured the poverty and menace of those famous streets. With Halloween and The Fog under his belt, you’d think John Carpenter would have taken a similar horror route. But he chose a different direction. More akin to Walter Hill’s The Warriors, 1981’s Escape from New York is a bold and ambitious sci-fi action movie.

Kurt Russell plays Snake Plissken, an ex-military drifter who is about to be sent to Manhattan Island. It’s the future; the year is 1997, and NYC has been turned into a giant gaol for the entire criminal population of the United States. Then a left-wing activist hijacks Airforce One and crashes it in Manhattan. On the ground, the surviving President (Donald Pleasence) is captured by top gangster The Duke (Isaac Hayes). The POTUS will be killed if General Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) sends in his soldiers. Hauk has no option but to blackmail his old adversary Snake into a rescue mission.

In an interview with The Guardian last year, John Carpenter said he doubted he could start out as a writer-director in today’s cinematic climate. He was talking about exploitation films and creative control, but another reason may be that films such as Escape from New York wouldn’t survive the online onslaught of narrative scrutiny. The entire plot of Escape from New York hinges upon the ridiculous coincidence of two events: the plane crash occurs at exactly the moment Snake Plissken is passing through border control. And once on the island, I lost count of the number of times Snake bumped into the right people on exactly the right street at exactly the right time.

Of course, the pay-off is ruthless storytelling efficiency and an unrelenting narrative propulsion. Carpenter doesn’t care for verbalised world-building; he simply shows us the world and lets us fill in the blanks with our imagination. Snake has no tour guide. How on earth did this bizarre, camp music hall revue crop up in this old theatre? Snake just swaggers through. He doesn’t ask the questions we’re asking in our mind, and nor should he – he’s against the clock and his singular purpose and sense of will is what drives the story.

A couple of years earlier, Russell had already featured in Carpenter’s Elvis TV movie. Other Carpenter regulars include Adrienne Barbeau and Tom Atkins, both of whom featured in 1980’s The Fog. Then there’s Pleasence, with his wayward American accent, playing the President as a dribbling wreck who is being set up for the ultimate humiliation. Escape from New York was made in the aftermath of Nixon, remember, in a funk of national cynicism, before Reagan normalised excess in US society (and headed an administration that would lead Carpenter to his sci-fi satire They Live).

If Carpenter were starting now, he would have been handed a gigantic studio franchise after the success of Halloween, but back then he was still wrestling with limited budgets. Considering this restraint, the work he does with Escape from New York – alongside production designer Joe Alves and regular cinematographer Dean Cundey – is nothing short of astonishing. Their urban jungle is as grottily rich a ruined world as anything in Mad Max. Carpenter scales up through pure ingenuity: the heads-up display of the city was achieved not with CG but strips of blacklight paper attached to miniatures. Carpenter shot extensively on location, on deserted backstreets, giving the film a veritable smoky atmosphere and a maddening sense of confinement.

There are plenty of flaws with Escape from New York, and most of them have to do with a script that, beyond the excellent high concept, looks and sounds like it was made up as it went along. The actual final escape makes no sense on multiple levels (not least because it seems so easy, considering the scale of the prison). But by that point it’s hard to care. Carpenter has never been much good at final acts, anyway. At this point in his career, no one came close to his ability to blend character, atmosphere and conceptual realisation. Escape from New York is the zenith of his non-horror canon.

Extras:

  • Purgatory: Entering John Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK: A brand retrospective documentary produced by Ballyhoo Motion Pictures and featuring interviews with writer Nick Castle, cinematographer Dean Cundey, composer Alan Howarth, production designer Joe Alves, special visual effects artist/model maker Gene Rizzardi, production assistant David De Coteau, photographer Kim Gottleib-Walker, Carpenter biographer John Muir, visual effects historian Justin Humphreys, and music historian Daniel Schweiger.
  • Snake Plissen: Man of Honor – featurette from 2005 featuring interviews with John Carpenter and Debra Hill
  • Deleted Opening Sequence “Snake’s Crime” with Optional Audio Commentary
  • Photo gallery incl. Behind the Scenes
  • Original Trailers
  • Audio Commentary with actor Kurt Russell & director John Carpenter
  • Audio Commentary with Producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves
  • Big Challenges in Little Manhatten: Visual effects featurette – from 2015, features interviews with both Dennis Skotak, Director of Photography of Special VFX, and Robert Skotak, Unit Supervisor and Matte Artist
  • I am Taylor – Interview with actor Joe Unger – from 2015
  • Audio Commentary with actress Adrienne Barbeau & DOP Dean Cundey

Escape from New York will be available on 4K UHD and Blu-ray from 26th November 2018. You can catch the film on the big screen, in 4K, this weekend (if you’re cinema is lucky enough to be showing it!)

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