John Carpenter's Escape from New York
DVD - Image B+ Sound A- Extras B+
BD - Image B+ Sound A Extras A
starring Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence
screenplay by John Carpenter & Nick Castle
directed by John Carpenter
The below was written a dozen years ago, definitely in a crunch (I remember being among the first to receive a review copy of that DVD and wanting to scoop other sites) and, consequently, probably in a crabby mood. New reviews of John Carpenter movies, particularly the early ones, tend to read like fetishism as opposed to criticism. Indeed, over the years, Carpenter's aesthetics have become a shorthand for cool, such that some modern horror filmmakers seem to believe that by co-opting them they'll gain instant credibility. Still, I think I resisted the pleasures of Escape from New York a little too vehemently--this must be the most negative 3.5-star review I've ever written. Yes, that rape scene, or would-be rape scene, is troublesome, but for Snake to intervene would've been even more offensive, because it would mean the situation was cynically contrived to give him a moment of glory. Snake's heroism isn't pandering, and while his laconic machismo fits a certain Eastwood mold, he finally emerges as more of a countercultural badass who uses his carte blanche audience with the President to ask him the kind of impertinent rhetorical question one wants to say to every bureaucrat valued more than the soldiers doing his bidding: "We did get you out. A lot of people died in the process. I just wondered how you felt about it." The President's ineffectual condolences, phrased as boilerplate and expressed with squirm-inducing hesitation as he mentally scans for a lifeline (then and there, Donald Pleasence exonerates his miscasting), justify Snake's final act in a way that makes me regret ascribing the "moral evasion" of The Thing--say what?--to this picture as well. Carpenter isn't ducking anything here: Snake sees that this world is rotten from the head down and so he lights the proverbial fuse. God bless him, he's an asshole. (But not a dick.)
Anyway, the above-it-all-ness of this review really grates in retrospect, especially the parts where I basically dismiss Carpenter's wondrous music as a guilty pleasure and fail to pay due respect to Lee Van Cleef. I'd seen Escape from New York a number of times by then, but actually came to Scream Factory's Blu-ray having not watched it once since 2003, and it was like catching up with old friends; I had what professionals call "a good viewing." I'd not mentioned--though I have always felt (and still feel)--the film starts to go too slack for its own good around the cage match, but I truly enjoyed revisiting this mythological gauntlet Carpenter has devised for Snake, with its vaudeville drag revues, Chock full o'Nuts sirens, and mine-covered bridges. Escape from L.A. tries to top all that but has its tongue buried so deep in its cheek as to kill any narrative momentum, which is why I say the best sequel to Escape from New York is Escape from New York again. Scroll down for deets on the Scream Factory release.-BC
by Bill Chambers Is there a person alive who can hear the opening theme from John Carpenter's Escape from New York and resist the urge to tap the keys of an invisible synthesizer? Composed by the director himself (who knows how to write memorable bad music, as much an asset as the ability to write good music), the Mike Post-in-spurs riff is a fitting anthem for The Apocalypse, as well as a textbook example of how to draw, nay, ease the audience into a film that will feel the whole time like you're staring through a filter at other films, chiefly those belonging to the western, vigilante, and zombie genres. The gift for acclimatizing an audience to his idiosyncratic vision through a simple, melodic overture is one that Carpenter shares with idol Sergio Leone; another is an affinity for the 'scope aspect ratio, although he steers clear of the extreme close-up (Leone's signature), probably half out of plagiarism-worry and half because he's not a sensualist. Carpenter barely even bothered to exploit cheesecake-ready Adrienne Barbeau the two times he directed her--even if she was his wife back then, that takes indifference. I think that men love John Carpenter movies, especially his early shoot-'em-ups, because Carpenter's action figures are so chaste as to evoke the sexless joy of boyhood roughhousing.
Granted, that sometimes means the well-crafted Escape from New York rises below adolescence, to paraphrase Mel Brooks--there's a rape-in-progress near the beginning of the picture that's always caused a bit of controversy, preamble as it is to an off-colour rimshot. Here's the set-up: Eyepatched malcontent Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) has just docked inside the penal colony/war zone of Manhattan Island circa, obviously, the future, but you'll laugh when the year is identified as 1997. (That was only 16 years after the movie's release--talk about pessimism!) Air Force One was hijacked and the President (Carpenter mainstay Donald Pleasence) managed to escape in a pod that crash-landed in New York City, where he was promptly abducted by ne'er-do-wells called the Crazies--their name and 'tude owing a debt to George Romero's hostile mutants of the same appellation, though Carpenter, a rebel spirit but not the Sid Vicious kind, seems to attribute their aggression to the spread of punk rather than to a viral contagion.
Convicted felon Plissken, whose rap sheet is long and tantalizing to presidential aides looking for a resilient, expendable courier, is injected with a microscopic bomb that gives him a twenty-two-hour deadline to recover the Chief of Staff. Prematurely declaring the mission hopeless after spotting the President's tracking device on the wrist of a homeless person, Plissken radios in to Hauk (Lee Van Cleef, a veteran of Leone's "Dollars" trilogy), the embittered head of a paramilitary police force, requesting permission to quit. Hauk threatens violence if he tries to return; "No human compassion!" Snake mutters in reply, and the tongue-in-cheek Kurt Russell antihero is born--but one must admit it's a sticky comeback in the context of Snake having just turned a blind eye to a woman being violated.
The problem with much of Carpenter's work is that it's sort of irresponsible like that. He's left us suspended in mid-air at the end of any number of pictures as a way of distancing himself from intentionality; the "point," he's said of The Thing's cliff-hanger finish, is "you have to use your imagination"--and I've never been able to stomach how morally evasive that is. Spielberg has spoken of his own apprehensiveness about intellectualizing the images he arrives at instinctively, and Carpenter has such an aptitude for filmmaking that rationalizing a creative decision probably feels to him like looking a gift horse in the mouth. Fear of personal retrospection dooms many prodigious artists to repetition (and certainly Carpenter's an artist, and certainly he's repeated himself), though, since part of progress is looking back to see if you've made some.
Complacent Carpenter anticipates we'll do the heavy-lifting. His assertion that Escape from New York holds contemporaneous relevance to the Iran hostage crisis that climaxed with Reagan's ascent to power is convenient in that most pop is incidentally socio-politically resonant; and the analogy doesn't really hold up to any scrutiny, particularly if you factor in the film's nihilistic conclusion. At best as far as meaning goes, the picture conveys Carpenter's notorious apathy for the title city in reducing it to rubble. Lucky for him, Escape from New York is overridingly cool, that three-and-a-half star rating for its incredible façade--for the cast; for Dean Cundey's typically-brilliant cinematography; for Joe Alves's dystopian sets; for suddenly-poignant shots of the World Trade Center; Carpenter's score; the charged, badass epilogue. I love this movie, yet I'm not sure if I respect it.
MGM presents Escape from New York on DVD in a new 2-disc Special Edition that purports to contain a HiDef remaster of the film. To my eyes, the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is indistinguishable from that of the studio's previous release. Both incarnations tone down the edge-enhancement of the sought-after LaserDisc and offer a more variegated palette. Contrast is inconsistent but often strong, and the source elements, a few stray pinholes aside, are in excellent condition. As for the Dolby Digital 5.1 remix, it's uneven erring on the side of engrossing: there's a constant intentional thrum served well by the subwoofer, while the rear channels are put to excellent use by ubiquitous helicopters and general anarchy. Voices are occasionally brittle, however, and the music responds somewhat poorly to amplification, getting buzzier instead of punchier.
Carpenter and Russell's LaserDisc commentary from 1995--their first yak-track together--is recycled here and deserves its legendary status, the only peril of the yakker's reuse that the boys refer us to supplementary material that's no longer on board. The two are not quite as tangential as we've come to expect, but if that leads to less laughter between the pair than is now the norm, it also means we get a solid document of the production, one with a hint of melancholy as the two men are confronted by ghosts of marriages past. (For Russell, bit player Season Hubley and producer Larry Franco, his sister's ex-husband.) Russell's hoarse cackling, of course, remains endearing and infectious. Alves and co-producer Debra Hill contribute an additional feature-length commentary that begins late (two minutes into the film) and overstays its welcome; an unenviable task to follow or precede the dynamic duo of Russell and Carpenter in any capacity, Hill and Alves don't exactly help their cause by rarely deviating from the monotonous topic of location scouting and the closely-related subject of set dressing.
Russell and Carpenter return in a recently-recorded optional commentary for the film's fabled "missing reel" (11 mins.). Cropped to 1.85:1 and in cruddy shape, this omitted prologue depicts Plissken's takedown after a credit-card heist. Understandably confusing to audiences (its aesthetic is weird but not explicitly futuristic) and a little too humanizing of Snake (as Russell observes), it's an opening sequence that would've at least provided an arc for Snake in the final cut (in addition to a mirror action for Barbeau's last stand) and is nice to have for posterity. Ditto Michael Gillis's "Return to Escape from New York" (23 mins.), despite its utter shortage of fresh insights. Isaac Hayes remembering Donald Pleasence as the man who cracked him up is priceless, as is Harry Dean Stanton, lit cigarette in hand, recalling that he agreed to do the picture once Carpenter granted him permission to improvise. ("Just don't mess with my plot," Carpenter amended.) "The Making of 'John Carpenter's Snake Plissken Chronicles'" is a text-based piece (albeit one strangely labelled "featurette") that explains each stage in the process of realizing an issue of the "Snake Plissken Chronicles" with excessive brevity, but the sample half-size comic jammed into the gatefold of the DVD package (above left) is a swell purchase incentive. A three-tier photo gallery plus trailers for Escape from New York (theatrical and two teasers), "Jeremiah: The Complete First Season", The Terminator, and The Fog round out this not-quite-powerhouse collectible. Originally published: November 23, 2003.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
I never got the chance to audit MGM's Blu-ray version of Escape from New York but I believe Scream Factory went back to the drawing board anyway for their own Collector's Edition, rescanning the picture's interpositive in 2K. That in itself is curious and something of a disappointment: While an interpositive comes directly from the camera negative and is thus superior to what you'd see in a theatre, it's still a generation removed from the original film. It seems like a missed opportunity to take this umpteenth home-video reissue of Escape from New York above and beyond, but perhaps the negative is incomplete or in need of restoration beyond the means of parent company Shout!. Nevertheless, this 2.40:1, 1080p transfer is better than adequate, looking both sharper and more cinematic than the company's BD of The Fog, if nowhere near as miraculous as the 35th anniversary edition of Halloween. It's a soft image overall, mostly due to the early-'80s anamorphic lensing, which accounts for numerous focusing aberrations and other homey artifacts, such as a thin blue stripe down the centre of the frame around the 9:10 mark. Grain is liberal enough, peaking as expected in dim interiors and during opticals, although it maintains a relative consistency that leads me to suspect some DVNR was lightly employed throughout. Fans should find the movie's grit preserved while observing gratifying increases in shadow detail and dynamic range, along with a slight colour shift towards the violet end of the spectrum. For what it's worth, this is the first time Hauk's earring registered to my eyes as anything other than the occasional analog glint. Note that there are no distributor logos up front.
Responding well to amplification, Carpenter's synth score brings the attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track roaring to life, sounding richer and more harmonically complex than it ever has before. Though I presume this is the same remix that graced the '03 DVD, the audio is fuller in general--especially the dialogue. The Russell/Carpenter and Hill/Alves commentaries resurface on alternate tracks, joining an exclusive yakker with actress Adrienne Barbeau and DP Dean Cundey moderated by the ubiquitous and encyclopedic Sean Clark, who looks to his co-commentators to confirm behind-the-scenes lore they sometimes can't. (Jamie Lee Curtis's voicing of the narrator is news to them.) Barbeau's chattiness quickly relieves the self-effacing Cundey from saying much, which is maybe just as well since it's difficult to hear him over the film's soundtrack.
Video-based special features have been shunted onto a second BD even though everything in this set could've fit pretty comfortably on a single disc. The original bank-robbery sequence and its optional Russell/Carpenter commentary return (alas without a HiDef bump--this despite some of its footage cropping up in HD in one of the new interview segments), in addition to 2003's "Return to Escape from New York" and the three trailers (which do get upscaled to HD). A fresh batch of featurettes begins with "Big Challenges in Little Manhattan: The Visual Effects of Escape from New York" (14 mins.), in which VFX DP Dennis Skotak and unit supervisor/matte artist Robert Skotak talk about mocking up Manhattan on a budget that was huge for Carpenter yet relatively small for a big F/X vehicle. Having just read J.W. Rinzler's comprehensive making of the Star Wars trilogy, I've developed an intense appreciation of, nay, affection for the work that goes into practical effects, and I nerded out over the many ways Escape from New York's illusions were achieved. Naturally James Cameron's name comes up (he's credited with the utterly convincing matte painting of Central Park, as well as Air Force One flying through puffy clouds), and Robert isn't afraid to knock one of the clunkier trick shots, i.e., Snake's glider falling off the World Trade Center like a paper airplane. In "Scoring the Escape: A Discussion with Composer Alan Howarth" (19 mins.), the aforementioned Clark sits down with the gregarious music engineer at his brand-new studio, where they discuss his role in the scoring process, Escape from New York's various soundtrack releases (complete with visual aids), and Howarth's plans for the future. It's a good companion piece to a similar doc on Scream Factory's Halloween III Blu-ray.
Arguably the highlight of these extras is "On the Set with John Carpenter: The Images of Escape from New York" (11 mins.), a bittersweet stroll down memory lane with the damn delightful Kim Gottlieb-Walker, Carpenter's long-time stills photographer, who recently published a collection of her work called, as it happens, On Set with John Carpenter. Escape from New York is the topic of focus--Gottlieb-Walker recalls a charmed production where any screw-ups led not to shouting matches, but rather to an instantly-defusing gesture of chagrin she captured with her camera again and again. Happily retired, she laments the lack of quality control in the flow of studio publicity now that everyone has a camera on their phone, and credits the plot of Halloween II to a night spent in the emergency room with producer Debra Hill. An untitled interview with Joe Unger proves that eight minutes is a lot to spend with an actor whose role hit the cutting-room floor (Unger played Snake's sidekick in the abandoned prologue). Unger appears bemused by the obsequious line of questioning, posed for our purposes via intertitle. "My Night on the Set: An Interview with David DeCoteau" (5 mins.) is likewise gratuitous, as DeCoteau was only around for a pick-up shoot and didn't remember that Adrienne Barbeau was married to John Carpenter when DeCoteau theoretically reunited with her years later. As usual, the cover sleeve is reversible, revealing the original Statue of Liberty key art on the flipside.