IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981)

Here’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, published in the April 2015 edition of the HWA Newsletter, on John Carpenter’s science fiction action thriller ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.

Enjoy!escape-from-new-york poster

—Michael

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT

BY

MICHAEL ARRUDA

John Carpenter’s movies, especially his early ones, are defined by a distinctive directorial style that makes his films more creative than most, and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981), his futuristic science fiction thriller, just might be his most imaginative film of all.

The epitome of John Carpenter’s work of course is his masterpiece, HALLOWEEN (1978), but his early films were all very good.  You can’t go wrong with DARK STAR (1974), ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976), HALLOWEEN (1978), THE FOG (1980), ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981), or THE THING (1982).  Carpenter would continue to make decent quality movies, some better than others, but it was these early films which defined Carpenter’s work for me.

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) is classic John Carpenter.  Chock full of style, its story of the island of Manhattan serving as a maximum security prison is about as far-fetched at you can get, which comes as no surprise since believable plots have never been a John Carpenter strong point.  But Carpenter’s signature touches are all over this one, and as such, it’s one of my favorite John Carpenter movies.

The story takes place in the “future” in the year 1997— gee, that went by fast!— and Manhattan is a maximum security prison with one simple rule:  once you go in, you never come out.  The President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) is on his way to an important summit to meet with the leaders of China and the Soviet Union (which of course would cease to exist before 1997, but to be fair to Carpenter, who in 1981 saw that coming?) when his Air Force One jet is hijacked and forced down into the streets of Manhattan.

Police Commissioner Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) decides to send in notorious convict Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to rescue the president since he can move about unnoticed— unlike the police— although I’ve always wondered what happened to their undercover officers?— and he can get the job done.  Hauk promises Snake a full pardon if he rescues the president.  To cement the deal, Hauk implants poison capsules into Snake’s neck.  If he makes it back in time with the president, he’ll be given an antidote.  If not, it’s sayonara Snake!

Snake pilots a glider into New York and lands on top of the World Trade Center.  As he searches for the president, he learns from Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine) that the man holding the president is The Duke (Isaac Hayes), the most powerful man in the Manhattan prison.  In order to save his own life, Snake will have to rescue the president from the Duke, and together, they’ll have to escape from New York.

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is one of John Carpenter’s most stylish films.  I absolutely love the look of this movie, as Carpenter nails the futuristic vision of New York City.  There’s something exceedingly animated about the look of this film, the vibrant colors, the brooding camerawork, and the artistic photography.  It reminds me a lot of what Tim Burton would do with Gotham City in BATMAN (1989).  There’s a lot of Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK in that film.

Carpenter embraces a lot of horror elements in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, including the “Crazies,” people who live underground and come out at night to wreak havoc.  One of the more memorable scenes in the film is when Snake meets a woman (Season Hubley) in a Chock Full of Nuts store, and the Crazies break in from underneath the floor and drag the screaming woman down with them.

The fight between Snake and the muscular giant (Ox Baker) is also notable, and the race across the mined bridge at the end of the film is one of the more suspenseful sequences.

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK also enjoys one of the deeper casts in a John Carpenter movie.  Snake Plisskin became the role which would define the second half of Kurt Russell’s career, as he made the jump from teen star in Walt Disney movies in the 1960s and 70s to full-fledged mainstream actor.  This role combined with Russell’s work in Carpenter’s next movie THE THING also cemented Russell’s place in the horror/science fiction genre.

Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken.

Kurt Russell as Snake Plisskin.

Kurt Russell almost didn’t get the part, because the producers were concerned he wasn’t right for the role because of his Disney background.  Russell based his interpretation of Snake Plisskin on Clint Eastwood, and Eastwood was one of the actors John Carpenter originally wanted for the role, but he turned it down.  Tommy Lee Jones, Nick Nolte, Jeff Bridges, and even Charles Bronson were all considered for the role before it went to Russell.

Had Eastwood taken the role, it would have been an interesting bit of casting as it would have reunited Eastwood with Lee Van Cleef, his co-star in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965) and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966).  In ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, Van Cleef is excellent as Hauk and makes a perfect foil for Russell’s Snake Plisskin.  Van Cleef was 56 when he made ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and he still looked like he could kick the stuffing out of everyone in the movie.

Lee Van Cleef gives Kurt Russell all he can handle in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.

Lee Van Cleef gives Kurt Russell all he can handle in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.

Donald Pleasence with his British accent is strangely cast as the President of the United States.  As much as I like Pleasence, he’s not very convincing in this role.  Harry Dean Stanton stands out as Brain, the brilliant right hand man to The Duke, who always seems to know that one bit of information that makes his life valuable.  The cast also includes Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine, Tom Atkins, Charles Cyphers, and Isaac Hayes as The Duke.

The screenplay by John Carpenter and Nick Castle isn’t going to win any awards for the most realistic tale ever told, but the film as a whole works well.  It also features some memorable dialogue.

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK also has one of John Carpenter’s best music scores.  Better even than his HALLOWEEN score?  I don’t know about that, but other than his music for HALLOWEEN, his score for ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is my favorite.

John Carpenter is famous for his horror movies, specifically HALLOWEEN and THE THING, but his futuristic action tale ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is one of his finest films.  With his inspired direction, a strong cast led by Kurt Russell in a career-changing role, and a superior music score, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is dark escapism at its best.

—END—

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