After establishing himself as one of the master of late 70s and early 80s horror with Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1980), John Carpenter returned to his science fiction roots (his first feature film had been Dark Star (1974)) with the brilliant Escape from New York, an audacious and witty post-apocalyptic thriller that proved, along with Mad Max 2 (1981) and Blade Runner (1982) to be among the most influential genre films of the decade. The Italians in particular loved it and based many films on it, including Sergio Martino’s 2019 – Dopo la caduta di New York/2019: After the Fall of New York (1983) and Enzo G. Castellari’s 1990: I guerrieri del Bronx/The Bronx Warriors (1982) and Fuga dal Bronx/Escape from the Bronx (1983).
By 1988, America’s crime wave is out of control. Increasingly desperate authorities seal off Manhattan Island with a 50-foot wall and lock all the criminals and ne’er-do-wells inside to fend for themselves. In 1997, with a war raging in the wider world, Air Force One is hijacked by terrorists while carrying the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) en route to a peace summit and the plane crashes in New York. The president escapes in a pod but vanishes among the gangs of New York. Captured bank robber and former Special Forces soldier Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is forced by Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) to go on a mission into the prison, explosive capsules injected into his body by Hauk, timed to go off if he doesn’t return in 24 hours. The race is on to find the president held captive by The Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) before the countdown ends. Along the way, Plissken, who arrives in New York aboard a glider that lands on top of the World Trade Center towers, battles insane “crazies” and is helped by a garrulous cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), a former partner in crime , Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) and Brain’s girlfriend (Adrienne Barbeau) to retrieve the president and get him to the peace summit before it’s too late not just for Plissken but for the entire world.
Escape from New York, though first and foremost a science fiction action thriller, is often as eerily atmospheric as any of Carpenter‘s horror films. Plissken’s first exploration of a ruined, alien and unnaturally quiet New York (actually filmed in East St. Louis, Illinois, the site of a huge fire in 1976 that had left while neighbourhoods burned out and abandoned) is particularly creepy. Elsewhere, there’s a very scary moment as the hordes of crazies swarm out of the sewers like the faceless gang members of his earlier Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), punching their way through the floor of a branch of coffee chain Chock full o’Nuts. For real, if entirely unintended, skin-crawling horror though little beats an early shot of Air Force One descending on New York, seemingly heading toward the twin towers of the World Trade Center…
Carpenter sketches in the world of Escape from New York initially with broad strokes, later picking out details through the panoply of strange characters. It’s set in a very weird sort of future (now the past of course) where Donald Pleasance, barely disguising his native British accent, becomes the President of the United States, where Lee Van Cleef is the head of the militarised police, where Isaac Hayes can become the Duke of New York and where Ernest Borgnine is an affable New York cabbie. Harry Dean Stanton and Carpenter‘s then-wife Adrienne Barbeau make for a nicely unconventional couple but the show is almost stolen by a fantastically eccentric Frank Doubleday as gang member Romero, all strange twitches and hisses and gravity-defying hair.
Escape from New York was the second of Carpenter‘s collaborations with Kurt Russell (the first being the television biopic Elvis (1979) and later The Thing (1982), Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and the less-impressive sequel Escape from L.A. (1996)) and it provides him with his most iconic role, the laconic and effortlessly cool Snake Plissken. Russell was keen to escape the Disney comedies that had been his forte early in his career and was cast by Carpenter over the wishes of his producers who wanted Charles Bronson or Tommy Lee Jones. It was the right decision, Plissken now one of the great characters from 80s action cinema.
The synthesizer score, written by Carpenter and performed with Alan Howarth, is one of Carpenter‘s best, a typically sparse and suitably chilly affair full of pounding drums, catchy melodies and, in the cue The Duke Arrives, a surprising cowbell. The music is scattered sparingly throughout the film, often reduced to a barely audible drone. The use of Debussy’s Engulfed Cathedral is an inspired choice and the main theme is one of the finest pieces Carpenter ever wrote.
Escape from New York is a perfect example of John Carpenter‘s greatest weapon, his seemingly effortless way with telling a story. The script is very funny (the repeated “I thought you were dead” line and Russell’s increasingly exasperated expression when he hears it is great fun) but also packs an unexpected political punch. The script was originally written in 1976 in the wake of Watergate and the erosion of America’s faith in their political leaders. It was perhaps fortuitous that it took so long for Carpenter to make the film which he described as “too violent, too scary, too weird.” It needed the mad pulp sensibility that Carpenter eventually brought to it for it to have been so effective. As it is, his America of 1997 is a war-torn police state run by politicians who manage to be spineless cowards and self-serving maggots at the same time. One of the most amusing parts of the script is the way that Plissken’s mission slowly comes to resemble a tourist’s day out in the Big Apple, taking in the sights. He lands on the World Trade Centre, takes in a show on 42nd street and a wrestling match (though not as a spectator) and visits the New York Public Library and Grand Central Station…
Escape from New York triggered a whole wave of similarly intended films and was cited by science fiction writer William Gibson as an influence on his 1984 debut novel Neuromancer. The throwaway line about Plissken flying “gullfires over Leningrad” was translated by Gibson into the back story of his character Corto whose own glider attack on a Russian target had ended in disaster. He also had his hero Case injected with tiny sacs that are dissolving and will permanently maim his nervous system if he doesn’t carry out his mission, not dissimilar to the explosive bolts implanted in Plissken. Later, producer JJ Abrams and director Matt Reeves took inspiration for Cloverfield (2008)‘s famous head of the Statue of Liberty scene from Escape from New York‘s poster artwork.
The film was a box office and critical hit and its status as one of the genre’s best was barely dented by the inferior sequel Escape from L.A. that followed in 1996. Carpenter panned to return to the world Snake Plissken again in 2003 when he started working with Mitsuru Hongo and Production I.G., creators of the Ghost in the Shell franchise, on am anime spin-off called Snake. It wouldn’t have referenced the events of the earlier films due to copyright issues but would have been set in 2020 and featured an older Snake Plissken. The project never came to fruition (though storyboards and character design sheets have surfaced) and as of 2020, Carpenter is still, pointlessly, trying to get a remake off the ground.
Directed by: John Carpenter; Avco Embassy Pictures, International Film Investors, Goldcrest Films International present a Debra Hill production. A City film; Produced by: Larry Franco, Debra Hill; Written by: John Carpenter and Nick Castle; Director of Photography: Dean Cundey; Film Editor: Todd Ramsay; Music by: John Carpenter in association with Alan Howarth; Costume Designer: Steven Loomis; Makeup Artist Supervisor: Ken Chase; Hair Stylist: Frankie Bergman; Production Designer: Joe Alves
Kurt Russell (Snake Plissken); Lee Van Cleef (Hauk); Ernest Borgnine (Cabbie); Donald Pleasence (President); Isaac Hayes (The Duke); Season Hubley (girl in Chock Full O’Nuts); Tom Atkins (Rehme); Charles Cyphers (Secretary of State); Harry Dean Stanton as Brain; Adrienne Barbeau as Maggie; Joe Unger (Taylor); Frank Doubleday (Romero); John Strobel (Cronenberg); John Cothran Jr (gypsy #1); Garrett Bergfeld (gypsy #2); Richard Cosentino (gypsy guard); Robert John Metcalf (gypsy #3); Joel Bennet (gypsy #4); Vic Bullock (first Indian); Clem Fox (second Indian); Tobar Mayo (third Indian)