John Carpenter is one of those names people recognize almost immediately. As a director he is often known for his work in the horror genre, but in reality he has dabbled in a diverse range of films. From his influential work in the horror genre with 1978’s Halloween to his outstanding foray in what I could only call fantasy-action-comedy with 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China (probably my favorite John Carpenter film and, note to Scream Factory, worthy of its own Collector’s Edition) he makes films that are not just good but films that you just can’t forget. This is the case with his 1981 release of Escape from New York, a dystopian action movie set in a future that has already happened (I’ll get to that momentarily). For those that have not seen Escape from New York, here’s a brief recap:
The film is set in 1997 (remember, it was filmed in 1981 and was supposed to be about the future. That’s important to keep in mind given that it’s almost 20 years past that now). Society has gotten so out of control that the government has resorted to turning Manhattan Island into a super prison in which the worst of the worst are sent there with no supervision just to be separated from society. Air Force One gets hijacked and crashed into Manhattan, but the President (Donald Pleasence, Halloween) manages to survive in an escape pod that also lands on the island. The warden of the prison (Manhattan Island), Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) makes a deal with a Special Forces commando-turned-criminal named Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell, Big Trouble in Little China) in which if Snake goes in and rescues the President within 24 hours he will get a pardon. Before sending in Plissken he installs an explosive in Plissken’s neck that will explode if he doesn’t make it back with the President. Once on the island Snake quickly finds a couple of allies to show him around and discovers that the President has been taken captive by a gang leader called The Duke, who essentially runs the island. Snake has to get past The Duke and all his prisoner gang members to rescue the President and get off the island before his 24 hours are up.
Escape from New York is a masterpiece in simplicity. The storyline is straightforward and never convoluted. The characters generally are what they are; while not 2 dimensional they also do not grow throughout the movie. Snake at the beginning is the same Snake at the end. The cast is first-rate, especially Russell in the lead as Snake Plissken. He plays the character with an understated coolness not often seen rather than over the top (Expendables is a good example of the exact opposite). Donald Pleasence is great as the President although his British accent is never quite explained, but in a world where Manhattan is a prison obviously a LOT has changed. The scenery is perfect for the atmosphere and an added layer of realism comes from it, in fact, being real. A neighborhood in St. Louis, IL had recently burned down and Carpenter used that to film his Manhattan scene. A more realistic setting could not be found, I’m certain.
The film also makes great use of the setting combined with lighting and the score. Carpenter and crew even devised a camera lens that could film in minimal light so they could film at night with the power grid turned completely off. The score, composed in part by Carpenter (who also created the Halloween Theme), is highly synthesized and electronic which I usually find annoying but somehow fits this film. Combined with a relatively low budget, the outcome is a great balance of score, grit, darkness, and more grit. That apocalyptic feeling was achieved and then some.
The film is presented in 1080p definition with the original 2.35 theatrical aspect ratio. Compared to previous releases, this one looks fantastic. They took the original negative and gave it a 2K scan for the best image possible. This is, of course, limited by John Carpenter’s use of a muted color pallet the filming of a movie almost entirely at night. Sometimes it gets a little dark and the details are not there but in other, generally more well-lit, scenes the details are there to the extreme (you can even see a tiny scar on Plissken’s neck I had never noticed before). This is probably about as clean of a version as you could get without losing some of the raw grittiness that makes it so good to begin with.
The film comes with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that does a solid job of balancing the dialog, score, and sound effects. There are times, most notably action sequences, when things like explosions and gun fire are not as powerful as they could be. But, that very well could be due to the low budget and you can only do so much with the original sound recording. Compared to a previous release I have, it still is superior in sound and range.
Escape From New York – Collector’s Edition is a 2-Blu-ray disc set that comes with reversible cover art featuring original poster artwork.
- Audio Commentary
- With Actress Adrienne Barbeau and Director of Photography Dean Cundey – This commentary is new to this release.
With Director John Carpenter and Actor Kurt Russell – this was brought over from a previous release but is by far the most interesting commentary of the bunch. Together they just get so animated.
- With Producer Debra Hill and Production Designer Joe Alves – I’m very pleased this one made the leap over as any preservation of the work of the late great Debra Hill gets a massive plus in my book.
- Big Challenges In Little Manhattan: The Visual Effects Of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (HD, 14:27) – The visual effects artists from the film talk a bit about how they made their vision come to life; a they talk a little about James Cameron too.
- Scoring the Escape: A Discussion with Composer Alan Howarth (HD, 18:56) – Alan Howarth talks about how he got partnered with John Carpenter and their collaboration methods.
- On Set with John Carpenter: The Images of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (HD, 10:50) – Kim Gottlieb-Walker, talks about her on-set experiences from Escape from New York.
- I Am Taylor: An Interview with Actor Joe Unger (HD, 8:49) – There was a cut scene in which Snake Plissken had a sidekick in crime. He was entirely cut from the movie and is very funny in his retelling of that story. The actor who played Snake’s sidekick in the cut opening sequence discusses his experience. It also includes a cleaned up version of that scene (still not included in the movie)
- My Night on Set: An Interview with Filmmaker David DeCoteau (HD, 5:02) – David DeCoteau was hired to come in and d some pick-up shots for the film and discusses his experience.
Deleted Scene: The Original Opening Bank Robbery Sequence w/ Optional Commentary (HD, 10:46) – We learn how Snake ended up in Hauk’s custody in the first place, though it is very low quality.
- Return To Escape From New York Featurette (HD, 23:00) – A short documentary about the making of the film with interviews of much of the cast.
Theatrical Trailers (HD, 2:46)
- Photo Galleries: Movie Stills and Behind The Scenes Photos – 141 images
- Photo Galleries: Posters and Lobby Cards – 47 images
In all, Escape from New York is really one of those movies everybody should have in their collection. Fans of John Carpenter should really appreciate it. Fans of action movies and post-apocalyptic will enjoy it equally. In a 95 minute running time it really flies by so you end up having a really fun time and don’t get bogged down or bored superfluous events. True, there is some grittiness that I think will never go away due to the nature of the film itself, but compared to past releases of Escape from New York, this collector’s editions is far superior to anything seen before.
Escape from New York Collector’s Edition is available from Scream Factory April 21st.
Fun Fact: The opening narration and the computer’s voice in the first prison scene is provided by an uncredited Jamie Lee Curtis.