Among his many other filmic talents, John Carpenter sure knew how to come up with iconic characters.

Take Michael Myers for example, whose shadow still looms over the horror genre to this very day, or perhaps the ghostly fishermen of eerie classic The Fog. Or maybe Macready in The Thing? Or how about Jack Burton in Big Trouble In Little China?

Those clued up on their Carpenter will know the common factor in the latter two is star Kurt Russell, and it is Russell to the fore again in another gem, Escape From New York – getting the restoration and re-release treatment this month.

The Carpenter/Russell icon this time around is Snake Plissken – a hard-nosed anti-hero that is all stubble, eye patch, camouflage leggings and sardonic put downs. In fact, so popular proved Plissken that eventually demand led a belated sequel, although the less said about that the better.

Anyways, back to the original, supposedly set in 1997 (although one of the real strengths of the film is you quickly forget that fact), and the island of Manhattan has been sealed off from the outside world, walled in and patrolled by security forces.

Inside Manhattan is a free for all, a dumping ground for the criminally minded, with the streets littered with debris, derelict buildings and dead bodies.

The security forces really could not care less what goes on within those walls, but all that changes when Air Force One, carrying Donald Pleasance’s US President, crashes – with the President escaping the carnage via a Darth Vader-esque pod.

That merely puts the Commander-in-Chief in the hands of the lowlifes on the Manhattan streets though, led by Isaac Hayes’s The Duke, who very much sees the President as leverage and a way to barter his way to all sorts of riches.

Stuck for a plan, the powers-that-be come up with the ingenious idea of sending in Plissken – a former Special Forces expert turned rogue, now holed up and with very little chance of ever getting out.

The offer is put to Snake – fly in, get his hands on the president (and the all-important tape he was taking to a summit) and his past crimes will be exonerated. The only problem is, Plissken is given but 24 hours to succeed, and the clock is ticking…

Carpenter had shown he was a dab hand at claustrophobic action with 1976’s Assault On Precinct 13, and Escape From New York shows the director flexing his kinetic muscles, mixing up close-quarter, clammy action sequences with broad, expansive city sequences.

The genres come thick and fast – yes, the film is in essence an action flick, but there are plenty of moments – notably when Plissken is being stalked through abandoned buildings, that could easily have dropped out of one of Carpenter’s horror efforts. You could even argue there is a bit of sci-fi in there.

The look of the film is amazing, with the oh-so recognisable locations turned into a wasteland of crime and degradation, populated by a series of off-the-wall characters, from Harry Dean Stanton’s ‘Brain’ to Ernest Borgnine’s Cabbie to Adrienne Barbeau’s Maggie.

Escape From New York also has a definite whiff of a western, with Plissken very much the man in black, riding into town with violence on his mind. That angle is obviously hammered home by the inclusion of spaghetti royalty Lee Van Cleef, barking orders to Snake as a security chief (backed up by another Carpenter favourite Tom Atkins).

The script (courtesy of Carpenter and the original Shape himself Nick Castle) is punchy, minimalist and full of quotable, memorable dialogue (‘I heard you were dead’) while the director is fully on song with the soundtrack, another one of his edgy synthesiser compositions that superbly complements the action.

The performances are all on the money, from Russell’s effortlessly cool Snake through to even the quirky side characters such as Frank Doubleday’s Romero (see what Carpenter did there…). There are also blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearances for the likes of Carpenter, Castle and Jamie Lee Curtis (actually, forget blink, more cover-your-ears-and-you’ll-miss-it as they are voice appearances).

A post-apocalyptic tale without an actual apocalypse, Escape From New York is a pacy, thrilling, violent exercise in style that belongs on any film fan’s shelf.

 

 

About The Author

Simon Fitzjohn

Simon is a journalism tutor in London, who also just happens to be a movie fanatic, with a craving for the darker side of cinema. He has written three books - on the horror films of director Bob Clark (2014), the history of the character Norman Bates (2015) and the work of British exploitation director Pete Walker (2017). He is currently working with director Richard Loncraine to explore all avenues in a bid to orchestrate the re-release of 1978 Mia Farrow chiller Full Circle