Beginning with 1976’s “Assault on Precinct 13″ and ending with 1981’s “Escape From New York,” writer-director John Carpenter carved out quite a niche for himself as the foremost genre filmmaker in America. This wasn’t the way Carpenter, “the next Howard Hawks,” envisioned himself, especially after co-writing the 1970 Academy Award-winning short “The Resurrection of Bronco Billy.” Carpenter very much wanted to be an action and western director, but this was altered greatly when 1978’s “Halloween” became such an artistic and critical success. In 1981, Carpenter and his production partner, Debra Hill, were given $6 Million to make “Escape From New York” and Carpenter had his chance to make his big western – a futuristic fantasy-western with horror elements. The final result was the biggest film, in terms of scope, in Carpenter’s career up to that point, but not the most satisfying.
“Escape From New York” was the most ambitious and expensive film Carpenter had made up to this point in his career, and it was also, in a sense, a goodbye to the early, and most prolific, phase of the director’s career. It was between 1976 and 1981 that Carpenter did his best work – “Assault on Precinct 13,” “Halloween, “ ”Elvis,” “The Fog” – and it was also a period where the horror genre was undergoing a renaissance that was ushered in by “Halloween,” not to mention genre-friendly companies like Avco-Embassy who produced “Escape,” “The Fog” and, arguably the best horror film made in the era after “Halloween,” Joe Dante’s “The Howling.”
“Escape From New York” was most notable, in terms of Carpenter’s career, in that it was the last film in which Carpenter used the entire Carpenter production unit that he’d worked with on almost all of his previous films. The film is full of familiar names that Carpenter fans know well – Tom Atkins, Barry Bernardi, Nick Castle, Dean Cundey, Charles Cyphers, Debra Hill, Donald Pleasence, Nancy Stephens – and their appearances – Jamie Lee Curtis also performs her last role for Carpenter in “Escape from New York,” supplying the opening voice-over narration – highlight the changes that Carpenter went through beginning with 1982’s “The Thing,” the film that marked Carpenter’s first big studio effort, an era in the director’s career that would see some good films, like “Christine” and the criminally underrated “Starman,” and a lot more failures like “Big Trouble in Little China” and “Village of the Damned.”
The most important casting in “Escape From New York” was, of course, that of Kurt Russell, ‘70s Disney teen idol turned eye-patch wearing, gravelly-voiced mercenary, Snake Plissken, Carpenter’s John Wayne so to speak. Not only was Plissken the anti-hero in which Carpenter modeled “Escape” after, but the relationship with Russell would turn out to be the most significant in the director’s later career, culminating in the disastrous 1996 sequel to “Escape From New York,” “Escape from LA.” They have chemistry together, and this is no more evident when Carpenter and Russell talk on “Escape From New York”’s audio commentary. Carpenter does the best audio commentaries of any director alive today – so low key and observant – but when he’s with Russell, it really makes for great listening, regardless of the film itself. They not only talk about film, or the film they’re watching, but life in general, in a way that makes you feel like you’re in a time machine. Russell was still married to “Escape” co-star Season Hubley(they met on “Elvis”)when filming on “Escape” took place, long before Goldie Hawn. John Carpenter was still married to “Escape” co-star Adrienne Barbeau who also starred in Carpenter’s 1980 film “The Fog.”
Who’s to say that Kurt Russell wouldn’t have joined Johnnie Whitaker in the scrap-heap of forgotten Disney child actors had Carpenter not recruited Russell into adult roles beginning with Carpenter’s excellent 1979 TV movie “Elvis.” As Plissken, the ruthless bandit entrusted by Lee Van Cleef’s police commissioner to rescue the kidnapped President of the United States(Donald Pleasence), Russell transformed himself into a foul-looking, stubble-covered warrior who doesn’t look anything like the guy from “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.” Aside from Pleasence, Russell and Van Cleef, the film has a great supporting cast including Isaac Hayes as a crazed emperor in a 1997 prison wasteland that’s become the island of Manhattan, Harry Dean Stanton as his assistant, Adrienne Barbeau as his girlfriend and Ernest Borgnine as a cab driver still looking for fares in a city that’s now a jungle.
Aside from the feature audio commentary(there’s another audio commentary with production designer Joe Alves and Debra Hill), the DVD includes a great featurette, “Return to Escape from New York,” detailing the making of the film, not to mention the missing ten minutes of footage that details the deleted bank robbery sequence that was originally supposed to open the film, essentially telling us how Snake Plissken was caught and what motivates him. Less interesting is a featurette on the making of the “Snake Plissken Chronicles” comic book that’s clearly nothing more than an advertisement. As usual with Carpenter DVDs, the audio commentary is the thing and the commentary between Carpenter and Russell is worth the price of admission alone, just to hear them talk – about “Escape From New York” or film in general.
More than twenty years later, is “Escape From New York” a good film? It’s a lot of fun, and a wicked piece of nostalgia, but it’s not as interesting as it could’ve been, especially in a year of 1981 that saw the release of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Characters have never been John Carpenter’s strong point and there’s a lot of potentially interesting characters squandered in the film, most notably Hayes’ Duke character and the other weirdos who are gathered on the Manhattan prison colony. How do they survive? What do they think of the outside world? Then there’s Snake Plissken who’s described as a sociopath but acts very much like the typical anti-hero. What would happen if Snake Plissken really was a soulless bounty hunter who would kill women and children? In the film, Snake Plissken’s clearly a man of some conscience and moral code and that takes a lot of the fun away, especially given the character’s fearsome reputation. It’s a good action-thriller, but not a very interesting one and, to be more exact, none of the interesting possibilities are explored beyond just being used as setups for the action scenes.
“Escape From New York” is a document of its time and it really did mark the end of an era, an era where independent film companies could make technically impressive genre films for less than $10 Million and still get a theatrical release. I mean, the budget for “Escape From LA” may have been $50 Million, but it was a lot more equaling a whole lot less. In a way, “Escape From New York” marked the end of the independents and for fans, and for John Carpenter, that’s a real shame.