John Carpenter had one of the best decades of any filmmaker in history between 1978 and 1988, making nine feature films and two TV movies, nearly all of which are solid, and some are absolute masterpieces. There’s a definite look, feel, style, and overall aesthetic to a Carpenter film from this period that doesn’t exist anywhere else in that time, except by people who wanted to ape him outright.
Today, we’re seeing a real upsurge of Carpenter-philes in film making horror movies in this same vein, or to just remake them. Halloween, The Fog, and The Thing have all been remade in the past decade, but the one that’s been talked about the most but still hasn’t gotten remade is his 1981 sci-fi action flick, Escape from New York, one of the most influential films of all time.
This movie is the apex, the confluence, of all of Carpenter’s best collaborators: the last of his films (for more than a decade) to be produced by the late, great Debra Hill and the first to be produced by Larry Franco; shot by the brilliant Dean Cundey; co-written by friend and Shape Nick Castle; the first of his movies to be co-scored by Alan Howarth; starring frequent collaborator Kurt Russell and co-starring other multiple-movie actors Donald Pleasence, Adrienne Barbeau, Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Atkins, Frank Doubleday, and, hey, even Buck Flower’s in there for a hot second. It’s also got his trademark disdain for authority and bleak vision for the future. This might be THE quintessential John Carpenter film.
Like any good sci-fi movie, you have to have a good premise, but like the best of Carpenter, that premise is very simple and the characters can exist within that rigid framework. In this case, it’s the far-flung future of 1997 and crime has become so absurdly terrible that the U.S. government has placed a wall around the island of Manhattan and turned it into a maximum security prison to house all of the nation’s worst offenders. There are no laws once they’re in there and no guards keeping the peace. The walls are patrolled by heavily-armed folks, though, led by Warden Hauk (Lee Van Cleef, muthafudgers). However, not everything is as downbeatenly idyllic as it might seem; Air Force One has been taken over by terrorists and the President (Pleasence) jettisons with a tape integral to an history peace accord that is set to begin in 24 hours. His escape pod lands in, you guessed it, Manhattan, and the gang led by The Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes), want to hold him for ransom.
This is where our snarling anti-hero comes in: Snake Plissken (Russell) has just been captured fleeing from a bank robbery in a very cool deleted scene and, because he’s the most famous soldier-turned-mercenary-turned-criminal in the world, Hauk decides to send Plissken in to retrieve the President. He wants nothing to do with the mission, even if he’s given a pardon afterwards, but he’s implanted with time bombs in his neck that will explode if he’s not out in 24 hours. Guess it’s time to head in. Once glider-ed in, Plissken uses a tracker to find El Presidente and along the way encounters Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), Brain (Stanton), Maggy (Barbeau), who both help and hinder his pursuit.
So, maybe it’s not a “simple” set-up, but it is a straight-forward one: Get in, get the president, get out. There’s a built-in time limit and real stakes if it doesn’t succeed, both for our hero and for the world, presumably. But this is why this movie is so great from a narrative standpoint. Nobody is a good guy, really. The President isn’t a nice or even honest person, we’re led to believe, once he’s rescued and acts like all the deaths were justified. Snake is the moral authority and our lead, but he’s clearly as amoral as they get when it comes to most other activities. Brain betrayed Snake in the past and would likely do so again. Cabbie seems like a nice enough guy, but he must have done something to be in the prison, right? And, really, if anyone’s the bad guy of the movie, at least to Snake personally, it’s Hauk who seems to relish putting Plissken through such torture. Van Cleef, of course, gives a great and steely-eyed performance, which perfectly matched Russell doing a Clint Eastwood impersonation the whole time.
What I love the most about this movie is the scope given how small the budget was. They were really lucky to get to film in St. Louis following a disaster, so the streets looked bombed-out and were totally evacuated. This added a scale to everything and Cundey’s lighting of Carpenter’s patented widescreen medium-shots really makes Snake and the other characters look tiny, like New York is as big and oppressive as it really is, even if hardly any of it was actually shot there.
Another thing that gives the film scale is its visual effects, namely the matte paintings and model work done by the Roger Corman effects house and people like Robert and Dennis Skotak and a still-pre-Terminator James Cameron. These shots are truly magnificent; of course you can tell they’re models, but that’s the whole point. It keeps with the grittiness of the whole thing, and is part of why this movie has stood the test of time. The second effects look dated, the movie’s not going to last. Model shots just look better than non-model shots. But that’s nether here nor there.
Ultimately, the movie lives and dies on the character of Snake Plissken being cool enough and also believable enough. This is down to the writing by Carpenter and Castle, yes, but mainly the acting of Russell. It’s actually very hard to not appear silly when playing an ultimate badass, and it all rests in Russell’s eye. He just exudes cool, the kind of nihilism that seems commonplace these days but was definitely not as fashionable at the time. Most action heroes of the decade were hot-headed muscle guys who fire Gatling Guns from the hip; Snake Plissken seems like a professional on a job and doesn’t give a fart about anything besides getting the job done and being away from all these people he hates. And it’s he who has the last laugh by ruining the peace talks after it’s clear the President is just as reprehensible as the baddies who kidnapped him.
I, of course, would be remiss if I didn’t mention the score to this fantastic film. This represents the first collaboration of Carpenter (who on top of doing pretty much everything else on his movies also composes) with Alan Howarth. He paired with Howarth on a number of his own films, and hired him to be the composer on movies he produced, like Halloween II. This all led to Howarth doing all of the Halloween films until Water.
Their work on this film is pure ’80s synth glory, full of all the driving beats and modulation for which these films are known but also shaking it up slightly by creating actual themes for characters like The Duke as opposed to merely tonally commenting on the action. The soundtrack album has rightfully been a charting seller on and off since the film’s release. Like a lot of Carpenter’s work, and this film as a whole, the music here continues to influence film scoring today.
Few movies remain as iconic and badass in a dated-yet-timeless way as Escape from New York. It’s a testament to the work of all of those great people I mentioned above that it is as steadfast as it is. Along with The Road Warrior, this movie pretty much invented the dystopian/post-apocalyptic movie (when zombies and monsters aren’t involved). I just watched both of these movies recently and I still kind of want to watch them in a double feature. Perpetually, really.
Carpenter would go on to make two more great movies with Russell (The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China) before the decade would end and they created the perfect trifecta of the directors in the ’80s. Carpenter remains one of my favorite directors and this movie is one of the main reasons for it, as it should be for you.