BFI John Carpenter Season – Escape From New York (1981)
‘Snake Plisken? I’ve heard of you boy…(Pause)…I heard you was dead’ – Nothing has put a wider grin on my haggard face that writing the title of this beloved John Carpenter classic in the blog post title field above, a film I have waited roughly thirty god-damn years to finally see on the big screen. When it comes to Carpenter I think we can elect The Thing as his ultimate masterpiece, no doubt many fans would argue the case for Halloween which is obviously iconic and bloodily carved out an entirely new movie genre, but I think The Thing is where all his skills, collaborators and instincts synthesized to a perfect pitch, to craft a timelessly resonant work that matures with age – plus it has just assimilated it’s ultimate edition yet. For me the next tier down contains Assault On Precinct 13 (my personal favorite) and Escape From New York, a film I have seen somewhere in the region of fifty or sixty times, from my formative days of the £5.99 VHS sell-through copy I replayed to exhausted ribbons, through to the various DVD and Blu-Ray iterations that have followed since. Words alone cannot express just how excited I was, even in those fledgling internet days to learn that the infamous abandoned opening sequence was going to be a special feature on the then technological marvel of Digital Versatile Disks®. Then that was still very much the stuff of a cinematic El Dorado, a Carpenter curates cup of cinematic catnip, if you will. There has been, to the best of my limited knowledge, precisely one public screening of the film since I moved to London, as part of the reasonably regular Carpenter themed all-nighter’s hosted by the Prince Charles cinema. I was intrigued, I’ll admit it, but with the best will in the world I didn’t think waiting to see some Blu-Ray copy projected to a snoring crowd of fellow geeks at 2:00am in the morning was quite the optimum conditions to apprehend one of my all time, most cherished genre missions. My patience has finally yielded fruit, as when the film was announced as part of the BFI’s Cult of Carpenter I was certain of the conquering of a long mooted foe, and when I realized it was also going to be a 35mm print I nearly passed out, the perfect complement to my earlier efforts in the year which is pretty much warping into the year of the Carpenter.
‘You touch me… he dies. If you’re not in the air in thirty seconds… he dies. You come back in… he dies’ – The premise, of course, is completely ludicrous. In the then unheard of futuristic sounding 1997 the crime rate has recently risen 400%, inspiring the embittered fascist government to convert Manhattan into a self-contained prison, exiling all criminals to fend for themselves in the apocalyptic archipelago. Hubris has a sense of humor however, when the President (Donald Pleasence) finds himself jettisoned into the hockey-armored arms of those he has abandoned to rot, after Air Force One is hi-jacked by left-wing guerrillas and plunged into the skyscraper skyline – hmm, I have a bad omen about that. Enter our rasping anti-hero Snake Plisken (Kurt Russell, iconic), the ex-special forces legend, holder of two purple hearts from the intriguing sounding Leningrad and Siberia campaigns, whom has been is sentenced to the prison for the aforementioned opening sequence botched robbery. Fate it seems smiles warmly on our stoic anti-hero, as he is offered one chance at a pardon by Prison Warden Bob Hawke (snake eyed Lee Van Cleef) – to infiltrate the site and exfiltrate the president and the occupants of his top-secret briefcase, in order to attend a critical Soviet summit on which the possibility of World War III is hesitantly hovering.
‘Call me Snake’ – The film was the result of a deal Carpenter struck with Embassy pictures, still bathed in the financial glow of Halloween which was until that point the most successful independent film ever made, and although previous effort The Fog hadn’t performed exceptionally well he was still contractually tied to a two picture deal. Rifling through his papers he revisited his post-Watergate scribed 1976 script, allegedly inspired by the Harry Harrison novella Planet Of The Damned, I don’t know about you but having reviewed that synopsis I can’t really see the connections. So, a quick detour to a a fun fact – under the watch of AVCO Embassy’s then president the studio also produced The Howling, Phantasm and Scanners during this grisly epoch – three other cult classics which are all primed for reboots and lavish re-issues. So where to begin in my unyielding love for this picture? Let’s begin with the esoteric, as I adore opening design titles in his trademark Albertus font, and I’ll just repeat my usual point about films of this period taking their time with the titles, just giving us the cast details, as the score soothes and eases you into the cinema experience. The wire-frame filming technique, primitive by today’s standards (and not computer generated which was spectacularly expensive in 1981) are quite direct and explicit in their iconic simplicity, and overall this works as a very effective, two-minute precis of the world we are about to enter – a deft, compact, economic approach, typical of a Carpenter construction. Then of course we have the soundtrack, let’s get that out-of-the-way lest we risk repetition from my last post, as it is absolutely one of his best. Draping the film with the ticking timeline is a stroke of genius, not just the President’s world saving summit appearance but also the explosive charges placed into Snake’s veins. Sure, it’s a little implausible but it powers the film with an accelerating tempo, an audience guide track which drives the plot, a sense of urgency which when utilized effectively can make or break a project. Even though you see very little of the 1997 world beyond the Manhattan ruins it somehow feels like a living, breathing entity, presented in a comic book way of course, but still strangely convincing and compelling that genre movies with ten times this budget fail to manage these days with all their wide-vista cross cutting possibilities, all the digital bells and whistles which are available. Of course, by 2016 it is simply unthinkable that America could elect a right-wing, proto-fascist demagogue who rants of erecting walls and exiling undesirables to perish in their own slums now isn’t it?
‘When I get back, I’m going to kill you’ – The cast is a rogues gallery of Carpenter comrades and then popular character players, from musician Isaac Hayes as the bling bungled Duke to the streetwise Ernest Borgnine as Cabby, trading in his earthy drama and horse-opera appearances for another SF picture a couple of years after he’d fallen into a The Black Hole. JC regulars Adrienne Barbeau, Charles Cyphers and Tom Atkins are always a pleasure, while the heavyweights weigh in with Menagerie favorite Harry Dean Stanton as the weasely
Harold Hellman Brain, and the gimlet eyed Lee Van Cleef who underscores the movies Western credentials – more on that shortly. In terms of minutia and obsessive lore I’ve always had a test for the real Carpenter fanatics, as there are essentially two kinds of acolyte in my book – those who nod and smile when you urge them to name two Frank Doubleday* pictures, and those who tremble and burst into tears. Now, of course you wise purveyors of the Menagerie recognize him from Assault, right? He was the mute ganglord murderer of the girl and in this joint is another memorable and ghastly side character whom you can mentally spin an entire origin story around, purely on the strength of their demeanor, costume and attitude – in this case Keith Flint from The Prodigy crossed with a troll doll. The film, despite its modest $6 million budget also excels in world building which makes the alternate history breathe, courtesy of the exemplar talent of Joe CE3K, Jaws, Freejack Alves. He brought the sense of those ruined, debris strewn Manhattan streets to the actual location of St. Louis which had suffered a major urban fire in 1976, thus served as an ideal fulcrum to paint a portrait of a ravaged New York. Matched with cinematographer Dean Cundey’s deep ochre and cobalt Panavision framing this is a film which coils in the crepuscular details, the miniature oil derrick pumping gasoline in Harry Dean Stanton’s Public Library rat-hole, the black jack-boot fatigues and elongated obsidian blast masks of the fascist authorities, the now retro-futuristic signage decals, these all thread a quasi realistic world which hook the audience into the action.
‘The president of what?’ – So, narratively speaking Escape From New York is a Western of course, Carpenter’s specialism was always decanting the design and iconography of these narratives and placing them in new genre templates, with our grizzled anti-hero entering extremely hostile Comanche country in order to rescue a figure of civilizing authority, and assembling a rat-tag posse of ne’er-do-well’s during his escapades. But this is not that simple as Carpenter has always harbored an anti-authoritarian streak that runs like a virulent Occupy march through his work. In this script, written as America was still reeling from the Watergate souring of the political class and the remnants of the Vietnam insurrection the rescue of the figurehead of the republic strikes a deeply sour note, with an elite political class barely acknowledging the sacrifice of his minions – in such an environment what is a man of quiet principle to do? There are so many favorite little film moments that I can’t justify with any film theory gobbledygook, just the tracking shot of the equipment of our resourceful anti-hero makes me grin, or Plisken taking a moment to correct an upturned chair in order to have a sit and think by the burning wreckage of Air Force One, or the expertly choreographed final race against time – it’s just simple, unadulterated genre film nerd nirvana, and if anyone would like to gift me the ultra-rare film novelisation I’m all ears.
‘You’re the… Duke, (quietly) You’re… A-number one’ – Must I remind you of the presence of a certain James Cameron esquire as one of the matte technicians and model craftsmen on the film? I hear that he went on to work on some popular pictures throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s? It’s not possible to watch the film and the utilization of the twin towers as the site of Snake’s clandestine entry and potential egress without some grim internal reckoning, but that’s always the case when you see any movie with them still standing erect, even in the distant background. Technically speaking its unusual for the period to shoot in wide 2:35:1 Panavision which certainly graces his films of the era with a wider vista, a more ‘epic’ feel, it steroid enhances the experience and drama and distinguishes them with a little more class and prestige through a frame more favored by the art-house brigade. The 35mm print was a little ragged and jerky at some points, particularly, as always, around the reel changes, but that was part of the whole electrifying experience, like a revisit to some grind-house or drive-in which this print must have played back in the last century. Colour and balance wise it was as strong as a digital scan, and most importantly the sound was fantastic, roaring out of the BFI’s modern Dolby tweakers during the action scenes or prompting giggles when dialogue exchanges got tough-guy taut. I’m slightly ashamed of my initial apprehension of seeing the film in the NFT3, I don’t know if they have upgraded this venue recently but the screen was much larger than I remembered, with equal coverage and better seat pitch and sight-lines than NFT2 so my hostility to this room has now evaporated like a triffid in a thunderstorm. Overall this was one of the greatest screenings I’ve ever managed, just to finally see this beloved picture in full frame anamorphic as opposed to the criminal pan-and-scan atrocities of those early VHS releases and TV transmissions still blows my mind, and in a well-preserved 35mm print with good sound and a respectful crowd to boot – an undeniable pinnacle of the ten years of the Menagerie.
‘…..The names’s Plisken‘ – So we slither to ole Snake Plisken himself, arguably Kurt Russell’s finest couple of hour’s in front of the camera. It’s no surprise that the studio was somewhat reticent to cast a former Disney child star in this incarnation of a lethal nihilist bad-ass, instead they pushed Charles Bronson on Carpenter as a preferred choice (was he ever in a SF movie? I can’t picture it) and also the gruff landscape gardener Tommy Lee Jones, but Carpenter stuck to his guns and the rest, as they say, is machismo history. It’s important to reflect that the movie was released in 1981, before Stallone, Ahndolt and Van Damage fully launched their carnage strewn careers, before the sort of super-macho, ubermensch model of that particular phase of genre cinema had fully taken hold. You can draw a clear line from Eastwood, James Coburn and Lee Marvin in the 1970’s through to this stoic anti-hero, I see him as very much a linking figure, with his alternating catchphrase and indiscriminate disrespect for authority. As such he’s an early precursor of the protagonist with whom one does not fuck, who uses unconventional methods to get the job done, except Snake would never respect the conventions of any system in the first place. I’m sure he comes across as a laughable parody to contemporary audiences, especially with the pirate eye-patch and studious rasping voice and sneering coolness, but I love the whole cartoonish demeanor. The less said about Escape From L.A. the better, for my sins I used to defend it as having some moments of amusement, but having re-watched it again earlier this year I’m fighting a losing cause here, as frankly it is bloody atrocious. The saga of the potential remake of EFNY limps on and on, year by year, and let’s face it will be a bloody awful – I’m calling it now. If they cast someone with the star persona of Gerald Butler, appoint the team behind the likes of the White House Down then really what do we expect.
‘You gonna kill me now Snake?’ ‘Not now, I’m too tired’…..(Pause)…..’Maybe later’ – But we’ll always have
Paris New York, if you judge a genre film by the breadth and longevity of its imitators then this is one of the gems, with the American and in particular Italian schlock peddlers carving out an entire dystopian sub-genre of film throughout the 1980’s – Bronx Warriors, 2019: After The Fall Of New York, Battletruck Megaforce, The New Barbarians, and Neil Marshall’s most recent Doomsday, although to be fair some of those took equal cues from the companion piece Mad Max 2 and I’d cite The Warriors as the final piece in a perfect movie trilogy. The final word is this screening was a quasi-religious experience for me, similar to that fealty to Assault On Precinct 13 earlier in the year, and I’m so, so happy to have finally apprehended a film I’ve been agonizing to see for, well, something in the region of thirty fucking years – and there was me thinking that my bloated A.I. review was the longest piece I was going to publish this year. Carpenter is somewhat renown for utilizing open endings, we the story would continue in its own little parallel dimension, just thing of the final verbal confrontation in The Thing which still provokes spirited debate, or the dream-shock climax of Prince Of Darkness, which is somewhat less successful. Escape From New York however champions one of his best finales, we exit stage right, limping and dragging upon a defiant cigarette, as through the bleak nihilism we fade to black as a jazz score recedes in the distance, as some bad-asses just don’t care if the world burns….
* Holy fucking Christ in a sidecar, discoveries like this are why we keep this ridiculous blog going – through my research it turns out that Frank’s daughter Portia just happens to be in the phenomenally brilliant Angela in Mr. Robot, the series I consider the pinnacle of storytelling entertainment of 2016, what a beautiful connection….