From the mid-70s to the late 80s, John Carpenter was an industry unto himself, variously writing, directing, producing, scoring and/or appearing in a string of well-executed genre entertainments that relied on atmosphere and colorful performances to make up for what they lacked in budget. Released in 1981, at roughly the height of its director’s most fertile period, Escape from New York is probably Carpenter’s most enduring work after Halloween. But whereas the singular effectiveness of that film has been repeatedly diminished by countless imitators and its own dreary sequels, Escape (despite its own inferior sequel) remains as simple and engrossing as it was 34 years ago. Its premise is pure Carpenter, all high stakes and no bullshit: New York City has been converted into a prison. The President of the United States is trapped inside. He has a cassette tape that’s vitally important for world peace, for some damn reason or other. And only one man can rescue him, recover the tape, and save the world. Enter our hero, Snake Plissken.
Snake is a rare feat among movie characters: a total cliche who’s never less than riveting to watch. Like most antiheroes, he’s tough on the outside and a bit of a softie on the inside, and his steely, soft-spoken menace owes more than a little to Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. Like all movie badasses, he looks the part: long, greasy hair; camo pants and a t-shirt that, for some reason, zips up at the shoulders; bomber jacket; and that eyepatch, hiding god knows what ghastly reminder of his days as a soldier, before he fell from grace. Yet there’s more to Snake than his looks. Watching Shout! Factory’s excellent new Collector’s Edition release of the film, you can’t help but notice the way Snake fills up a room the way no other character in a Carpenter movie ever quite manages. In both a commentary and making-of featurette, Kurt Russell explains how playing Snake allowed him to ditch his reputation as a likable Disney star and expand his range as an actor, but there was more to it than that. Snake gave Russell the chance to vent his own anti-authoritarian impulses on screen, to play a man who resolutely lived by his own rules, and he seized it. It’s no surprise that Snake Plissken is Russell’s favorite of all the characters he ever played, and it’s his performance, more than anything else, that anchors the movie and makes it so endlessly rewatchable.
While Russell is a key factor in the movie’s longevity, Escape is no one-man show. In fact, it may have the deepest bench of any Carpenter movie: Lee Van Cleef, Harry Dean Stanton, Halloween veteran Donald Pleasance, Ernest Borgnine, Adrienne Barbeau, Isaac Hayes — any one of these iconic figures would have served as a worthy foil to Snake Plissken. Having all of them makes Escape from New York uncommonly intense and vivid; there’s a memorable turn by at least one of these actors in every single scene.
Beyond the performances, Escape from New York is a master class in making a big picture out of very little resources. The bonus features on the disk — including the aforementioned featurette and a second commentary with producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves — explain how the production team were able to pass off a few burned-out blocks of St. Louis as a rotten Big Apple, including a trick shot worthy of Hitchcock, wherein the camera begins panning over Liberty Island and ends, thanks to a hidden cut, under a dam in Los Angeles. Add a couple shots of the Statue of Liberty, sections of a scrapped DC-8 and a few tons of trash spread over the streets (and scrupulously collected at the end of each night’s shoot), and voila: a dystopian city of the future, made for the paltry sum of $6 million (roughly $16 million today, or what it cost to make about 7% of The Avengers).
The Collector’s Edition boasts a 2K transfer prepared from a new interpositive, so the picture quality is stellar. The bonus features mostly hail from previous releases (hence the commentary by Hill, who died in 2005), though the set adds a new, third commentary with Adrienne Barbeau and director of photography Dean Cundey. There’s also a new feature on the visual effects. Virtually all of these were done in-camera, from the cardboard model of Manhattan to the matte painting of Central Park, created by a promising young effects artist listed in the credits as Jim Cameron. And I appreciated the short interview with Alan Howarth, who worked with Carpenter to create the film’s memorable score. (Howarth claims the Escape from New York soundtrack album sold 80,000 copies, an impressive amount for an instrumental soundtrack in 1981.)
Escape from New York is a welcome reminder of a Hollywood that could turn out ambitious, entertaining films on shoestring budgets and with a minimum of fuss and bother. When it’s remade — as seems increasingly likely — we can only hope the result will boast even a fraction of the inventiveness, warmth and style of the original. And should it fall short, the original will still be there, preserved in this A-Number-One release.
Escape from New York: Collector’s Edition is available April 21.