Home Entertainment: Escape From New York Review

Escape From New York (John Carpenter, 1981) Few genre filmmakers have enjoyed the streak of success that John Carpenter somehow pulled off from 1974-1988. Mixing and matching horror, thriller, western, action, and sci-fi movie tropes, the man essentially defined the nature of B-movies for the 80s and did it all while writing, directing, and scoring. The folks at Shout Factory have been cranking Carpenter classics onto Blu-ray since they kicked off their Scream Factory genre label and have finally secured the rights to one of his most iconic and important efforts with Escape From New York. The film’s influence was massive, helping kick off the ‘lone man on a mission’ action genre for the 80s while also laced with enough style and cynical wit that it somehow still holds up 35 years later. Sure, it’s starting to age a little bit to contemporary eyes, but for those who love early 80s genre thrills the title remains a touchstone classic that’s well worth watching even for those who have only one good eye.

The high concept flick kicks off by explaining it’s near future conceit. The year is 1997 (presumably just before the Skynet apocalypse kicked off) and New York has been separated from the US to function as a massive prison for the country’s overflowing population of convicts. There are no rules in NY now, it’s essentially criminal anarchy or heaven depending on your point of view. After a terrorist group takes over Air Force One, the president (Donald Pleasence) ends up trapped in this fully criminalized Manhattan. A team of super police led by Lee Van Cleef attempt a rescue mission, but learn that big boss Isaac Hayes has kidnapped the president with plans to kill the big guy. Only a man with firm connections to the underworld could possibly head into New York for a rescue mission and Cleef knows the perfect guy for the job: the spectacularly named and eye-patched Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell). To stack the deck, Cleef also ensures that Snake will die in 24 hours if he doesn’t return with the president. So, the hunt is on, the location is strong, and shit is going down. 

Escape from New York

Even though the concept suggests pure action, Escape From New York is defined by Carpenter’s usual combination of atmosphere and anticipation. His ravaged New York is a terrifying place with criminals popping up in the corner of almost every frame like Michael Myers. Carpenter milks the atmosphere for all it’s worth, rather brilliantly creating a post apocalyptic New York by dressing up already rundown streets. The filmmaker’s cynical sense of humor and anti-authoritarian stance are all over the movie without overwhelming the suspense/entertainment focus. In Snake Plissken, he created a contemporary equivalent of a Spaghetti Western antihero and in Kurt Russell he found not just an ideal whispering badass, but his personal star. Russell has been better in other roles (even for Carpenter), but he’s never created a character more iconic and it left a mark on deadpan action heroes for a decade. Surrounding Russell is one of the strangest casts in history, combining old Hollywood veterans like Cleef and Ernest Borgnine with 80s genre vets like Adrianne Barbeau and Tom Atkins, non actors like a never-better Isaac Hayes (who is a spectacular brooding villain), and even tossing in Harry Dean Stanton for good measure. As a result of the incredible cast there’s a grit and credibility to Carpenter’s wild ideas and everyone locks in on the script’s subtle humor. Sure, the movie a little slow by contemporary action standards and some of the effects have dated, but as a overambitious B-movie with a brain Escape From New York remains pure pleasure.

As with all John Carpenter joints, the visuals and score as much the star of Escape From New York as anything else and Shout’s new Blu-ray ensure those aspects have never been better at home. The transfer is absolutely gorgeous, offering deep inky blacks and revealing background details that have never been visible before. Given the deliberately shadowy visuals, it’s not a disc that will burst off your screen in vibrant colors, but offers plenty of other pleasures (especially in showcasing the extraordinary matte painting and minature effects work, many of which were done by a young James Cameron). The cold and atmospheric synthesizer score by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth dominates the new lossless soundtrack and sounds beautiful. For a movie this driven by the sites and sounds, the Blu-ray is a revelation that tops any and all previous releases.

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Of course, Shout doesn’t tend to merely clean up movies and shove them out into the world, they also stack their discs with special features and this puppy is no exception. The excellent documentary and commentaries from Russell/Carpenter and Debra Hill/Joe Alves from previous releases are all present and accounted for. On top of that you’ll also get a new commentary from cinematographer Dean Cundy and actress Andrianne Barbeau filled with fresh anecdotes, an interview with actor Joe Unger (who was cut out of the movie, but still has plenty to say), an interview with on set photographer Kim Gottlieb-Walker, a fantastic interview with composer Alan Howarth about his long collaboration with Carpenter, and best of all a detailed documentary dedicated specifically to the ingenious practical effects work. Toss in the usual stills and trailers and you’ve got one of the most overflowing Scream Factory Blu-rays yet for a B-move classic that deserves the reverence. Sure, it would have been nice for some new comments from John Carpenter to pop up somewhere on the disc, but with all his old content included it’s hard to complain. This is one damn fine release that should have the legion of Escape From New York fanatics foaming at the mouth.  

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