Release Date(s)1981 (April 21, 2015)
Studio(s)Avco Embassy/MGM (Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A-
[Editor’s Note: The film portions of this review are by Adam Jahnke from his 2003 DVD review, available here at The Bits. The Blu-ray review portions – A/V quality and extras – are by Bill Hunt.]
It’s one thing to earn an “A Film By” credit, that ubiquitous declaration of authorship that appears at the front of everything from Goodfellas to Glitter. It’s quite another to emblazon your name in a possessive above the title, more a proclamation of ownership than auteurism. It takes a lot of chutzpah to insist on something like that, especially in the frequently ghettoized world of science fiction, fantasy and horror filmmaking. Even Wes Craven only got away with it once. But the films of John Carpenter are such unique products of his own vision that the appearance of his name before the title elicits more grins of excitement and expectation than groans of pretension. Nobody else could have made these movies in quite the same way. Without any question, it is John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and, of course, John Carpenter’s Escape from New York.
Released in 1981, Escape from New York marked the second teaming of Carpenter and Kurt Russell, who had previously worked together on the 1979 TV-movie Elvis. Taking a chance that nobody else in the world would have taken, Carpenter cast Russell waaaaaay against type as Snake Plissken, possibly the baddest-ass in a year heavy with bad-asses (including Mel Gibson in The Road Warrior, James Caan in Thief and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark). The movie’s premise was simplicity itself. In the not-too-distant future of 1997, Manhattan has been turned into a giant prison servicing the entire country. A huge wall has been erected around the island and the city is now even more of a Roach Motel than it was in the real world. Once you go in, you don’t get out. Terrorists highjack Air Force One, causing the plane to crash inside the prison. The prisoners grab the President (Donald Pleasence) and hold him for ransom. At the same time, legendary criminal Snake Plissken is on Liberty Island, waiting to be processed and put inside. Snake is offered a deal from Hauk, the US Police Commissioner. Go in, rescue the President, and get out in 24 hours and receive a full pardon. Realizing that he’s going in one way or the other, Snake takes the deal.
Carpenter’s New York-as-prison concept holds up even today after Times Square has been cleaned up and everybody in the world adores New York City. So imagine how irresistible it was in 1981 when most of the country imagined New York to be hell on earth. Back then, Escape from New York didn’t seem all that far from the truth, especially if your only exposure to the city had been through movies like Death Wish and The Warriors. Quite simply, Escape from New York boasts one of the best high concepts in the history of science fiction cinema. Amazingly enough, Carpenter and co-writer Nick Castle populate the world with memorable characters, brought to life by a terrific ensemble of actors. Both helping and hindering Snake in his journey (sometimes at the same time) are Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine in one of his most enjoyable performances of the era), Brain (the always entertaining Harry Dean Stanton), and Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau at her absolute sexiest). Ruling the prison is the Duke of New York, played with casual menace by Isaac Hayes, and his major domo Romero (images of Frank Doubleday in character are among the movie’s most memorable promotional stills). And casting Lee Van Cleef as Hauk was nothing short of inspired.
Even with all this going for it, Escape from New York would fall apart without a strong central character. Fortunately, Russell attacked the role of Snake Plissken with everything he had. With his long hair, eye-patch, and winter camouflage pants, Snake became an immediate icon. But what makes Snake such a memorable character is his total lack of interest in anyone or anything other than himself. He doesn’t go out of his way to help people and he doesn’t look for trouble. But when it finds him anyway, he’s more than ready to deal with it. Both Carpenter and Russell should be commended for staying so true to the character throughout the film. It would be easy to try to make the character more sympathetic or traditionally heroic. Instead, they realize that this man has a job to do and a very short time to do it in. Anything that gets in the way of him completing this mission is a distraction and Snake Plissken just can’t be bothered with it.
Scream’s Blu-ray presentation features the theatrical cut of the film, mastered from a new 2K scan of the inter-positive struck from the original negative. It’s honestly hard to imagine the 1080p/2.35:1 video image looking better than it does here. Given its low budget, 1980s vintage, and the fact that the film was shot with anamorphic lenses, there’s going to be a certain softness to the image here and there, and a certain amount of grain. But this HD presentation is very good and represents a serious improvement over the previous 2010 MGM Blu-ray, which was dimmer, softer looking, and had muted coloring. Contrast here is very good, fine image detail and texturing are nice – production limitations notwithstanding – and the color timing and accuracy is excellent. This is a much more natural looking image than the MGM Blu-ray. The audio here is presented in 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio. Near as I can tell, it’s the same 5.1 mix that was on the MGM Blu-ray, which is fine because that was good, with nice dynamic range, a big soundstage, and lightly immersive surrounds. The original stereo mix has been upgraded to DTS-HD Master Audio as well, and it too sounds good. Neither track is reference quality, but they pair with the image here nicely. Optional subtitles are available in English.
Let’s talk extras. First things first: Virtually everything of substance from MGM’s 2003 2-disc DVD Special Edition has carried over here. You get the Return to Escape from NY documentary (22:59), a pair of theatrical trailers, Missing Reel #1 – just called Deleted Scenes here – with optional commentary by Kurt Russell and John Carpenter (10:53), plus still galleries featuring behind-the-scenes photos, production photos, and lobby card images. You also get both original audio commentaries featuring Kurt Russell and John Carpenter, and producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves. All that’s missing from the DVD is one of the trailers (of poor quality), the Snake Bites Trailer Montage, and the Making of John Carpenter’s Snake Plissken Chronicles comic book gallery, as well as the actual Snake Plissken Chronicles comic book. But honestly, you really don’t miss any of it, and you can always keep the original DVD set if you wish.
However, Scream has produced some great new material just for this release. It starts with a brand new audio commentary track with actress Adrienne Barbeau and DP Dean Cundy. Essentially, they watch the film while being interviewed about their work on it by Sean Clark of HorrorHound magazine. Sean keeps things moving along nicely, and there are some interesting anecdotes. You also get five new documentary featurettes, all in HD/1.78:1. They begin with Big Challenges in Little Manhattan: The Visual Effects of Escape from New York (14:27), which is an interview with Dennis and Robert Skotak, illustrated with behind-the-scenes photos and select film footage. They talk about working on the plane crash, the matte paintings, and the New York City miniature, among other things. Scoring the Escape: A Discussion with Composer Alan Howarth (18:56) is exactly what it sounds like. Sean Clark sits with Howarth in his new recording studio, as the composer describes how he got involved in the film and how the score evolved. On the Set with John Carpenter: The Images of Escape from New York (10:50) is an interview with Kim Gottlieb-Walker, who worked as a still photographer on many of Carpenter’s films (including this one) and who recently published a coffee-table book of rare photos from those experiences. (It’s available here on Amazon if you’re interested.) I Am Taylor: An Interview with Actor Joe Unger (8:49) has Unger recalling his time on set and includes some interesting outtake and dailies footage. And My Night on the Set: An Interview with Filmmaker David DeCoteau (5:02) features DeCoteau, who was a production assistant at Roger Corman’s Venice Studios at the time, recalling an evening when Carpenter and company came in to do insert shots for the film. All in all, the new material is solid and complements the older extras nicely.
Escape from New York is not John Carpenter’s best film but it’s an easy movie to fall in love with because it’s just so much fun. It’s a great execution of a neat idea and at a brisk 99 minutes, the movie never runs the risk of outliving its welcome. Snake Plissken fans will want to watch the movie over and over again, so for that reason alone, MGM’s latest incarnation of the film is worth picking up. Scream’s new Blu-ray Collector’s Edition delivers the goods, essentially making all previous Blu-ray and DVD versions obsolete. It’s a worthy addition to the expanding library of John Carpenter special editions on disc.
- Adam Jahnke (with Bill Hunt)