John Carpenter’s 1981 cult classic Escape from New York is first up on our list of retro spectates! Has Snake Plissken’s adventure stood the test of time?
The year is 1997. For the past decade, the island of Manhattan has operated as America’s largest prison. When Air Force One is hijacked and crash lands inside New York, a rescue mission is launched to rescue the President of the United States. One man is sent over the walls to rescue him; a decorated soldier recently captured after a robbery gone wrong. Injected with a time bomb and sent into no man’s land, Snake Plissken must recover and escape with the President to avoid global catastrophe.
Fresh off of The Fog (1980), legendary director John Carpenter returned to the chaotic themes he explored in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and crafted one of the greatest cult movies of all time. Escape from New York delivers dark, dystopian tension and oozes character in every frame. Carpenter’s flair for horror seeps through the pores of Escape, creating a gloriously oppressive viewing experience.
With an ominous title sequence and that iconic theme, Escape kicks off in suitably eerie fashion. After a brief introduction (delivered by Jamie Lee Curtis, no less), we are thrown headfirst into a bleak vision of the future. Our protagonist Snake, despite being a decorated soldier and regarded as a war hero, is far from heroic. He’s a rogue, arrested after an attempted heist on the Federal Reserve. He clashes with authority and is apathetic to the President being kidnapped. With his gruff delivery and signature eyepatch, it’s easy to see how Plissken became a cult favourite and a direct inspiration on the Metal Gear Solid video game series.
Escape works so well because it doesn’t try to explain its world in detail. It’s the little details scattered throughout the movie that stick out, offering a glimpse into life within the walls of New York. For example, one scene set inside a dilapidated theater shows male prisoners dolled up and performing musical numbers. It’s an incredibly clever way of showing us what it’s like on the prison island, bringing a sense of normality to a science-fiction setting. Snake’s mission sees him cross a variety of colorful players.
Hauk (Lee Van Cleef), the tough as nails commissioner of the police force overseeing Snake’s mission, bookends Escape with authority (“I’m ready to kick your ass out of the world, war hero”). The whole supporting cast do an incredible job of injecting character into the movie, with Ernest Borgnine as the happy-go-lucky Cabbie and Harry Dean Stanton as the meticulous Brain. Carpenter regulars Adrienne Barbeau, Charles Cyphers and Donald Pleasence also feature, with Isaac Hayes embodying cool as the villainous Duke of New York.
Escape thoroughly succeeds in building a world that is both super imaginative and hyperreal, thoroughly believable despite being outdated in reality. Though the storyline is basic and the setup comes straight out of a trashy B-movie, there’s something gorgeous about it that sets it apart. The vision of New York as a ghost town, beautifully realised through a combination of real sets (abandoned stretches of St. Louis), matte paintings (featuring art by pre-Terminator James Cameron) and striking cinematography by Dean Cundey, it’s just as thrilling as it is terrifying.
If you’ve never given Escape from New York a watch, I highly recommend it. It’s a fantastic little thriller that clearly highlights how John Carpenter gained notoriety as a low-budget genius. Mixing action, horror, suspense and even Western elements (with the casting of Van Cleef and Snake’s role as a lone gunfighter) effortlessly, Carpenter and co. took a schlocky idea and turned it into a true cult classic. As the adventure comes to a close and Snake walks away, drifting onwards into an uncertain future, you can’t help but smile.
‘The name’s Plissken’…