Bright Lights Film Journal

Plissken on Parade: Escape from New York (1981) Comes to Blu-ray

Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken. Screenshot

So even if you aren’t nostalgic for the heady sense of danger and decadence, do yourself a favor and crash the pod down into Carpenter country – an alternate reality where the Dinkins-Koch era NYC was allowed to flourish until the goddamned city collapsed under its own weight, becoming a massive condemned hell hole.

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Your poor huddled masses, let’s club ’em to death /
and get it over with and just dump ‘em on the boulevard”
— Lou Reed, “Dirty Blvd” (1989)

Now that NYC’s past shadiness exists only in vintage Lou Reed albums and pre-digital film, Carpenter’s 1981 action film Escape from New York (1981) looms larger than it ever did, a perfect popcorn capstone to the old city, and on the new Shout Factory Blu-ray it’s a whole new world, the grime and decay as gorgeous as only clarity and distance can make it. Now that we’ve lost it, maybe forever, it’s precious. But thanks to the HD clarity of Blu-ray, we may be glad we’re living in a safe Disneyfied upgrade after all. If we were still back in the early ’80s, our Blu-ray player would have probably already been stolen.

Back in 1981 when Escape came out, the outcome of the VHS vs. Beta war was still uncertain, and NYC was at the Fall of Ancient Rome stage, so the notion of “why not build a fence around it and just turn the whole cesspool into a prison, or garbage dump?” was in the air, especially from shocked tourists on Broadway, or likely, Carpenter, who lives and works in LA. Let ’em shiv each other to death and the pigeons and rats take the rest was a thought batted around during millions of rides home back to suburban safety after the show let out. In that sense Escape was a gimmick film, the kind of thing where we all let out a knowing chuckle at the commercials and newspaper ads. We’d thought of the prison idea; now it was a movie.

The ironic tie-ins abound: The film is set 16 years ahead from its release date of 1997, a time when you could still smoke in bars but the Cabaret Law made dancing illegal except in designated areas, like Giuliani had become the buzzkill preacher in Footloose, and Times Square was in full Disneyfication swing. In Carpenter’s sci-fi version, the nanny state buzzkilling has turned the city into a maximum security prison surrounded by machine gun nests, Coast Guard, and mined bridges. As the “prison” has no electricity, Escape’s sets, lit by longtime Carpenter collaborator Dean Cundey, are almost entirely illuminated by torches, headlights, and fires. As such they have always suffered from murkiness, even on the big screen; drive-in screens – Escape’s chosen habitat – suffer from so much ambient lighting; and on home video, Carpenter’s justifiably celebrated widescreen compositions were mercilessly cropped and analog artifacted, turning the night into a fuzzy gray expanse.  Even an early MGM DVD suffered from this gray effect, and a remastered job was a big step up, but none of it can prepare us Carpenter devotees for the revelations to be had in this new Blu-ray, as now each flickering torch and its radius of orange glow are distinctly visible, adding clarity, depth, and amazement; the vast 3-D space is felt and the care and craft of Cundey are in glorious evidence.

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Like all the best Carpenter films, it’s told over one 24-hour period, mostly over one or two long nights, and the influence of Carpenter’s beloved inspiration Howard Hawks is prominent, especially the whole iconoclastic aspect of disparate forces, rugged loners on both sides of the law, uniting in a common cause of survival. Or in this case Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken, a former ranger turned rogue about to be sent into the NYC prison but instead put in a glider and given coordinates to land on top of the World Trade Center in order to rescue the president who crashed down below in a bright orange escape pod (the brightest color in the film and shaped like a giant Easter egg).

I first saw Escape on video as a kid along with The Warriors (1978) the same Halloween night when my friends and I were around 14, and to be honest, Escape paled in comparison to The Warriors, which had just our kind of pizazz and cool fight scenes, the kind of rumbles we could imagine getting ourselves into if we wandered down the wrong street on one of our ventures into the city with mom. Escape was way more outlandish, the action less choreographed, more confusing, especially cropped for normal size TV.

Now, though, on a big HD TV and thanks to Shout Factory’s loving attention, the full cohesive depth of its sets and Dean Cundey’s intricate fire-lit cavernous sets shines through. I recently rewatched it alongside The Warriors, and this time Escape seemed the more believable and tactile. The Warriors seems way too comic book simplistic (with a tired romantic angle). The Blu-ray reveals the amount of care and detail put into giving the NYC prison its large scale seedy majesty; the shadows and flickering orange light from the torches now evokes archaic timeless depth, as if the entire city is one sprawling Gothic castle.

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The Warriors has the advantage of actually being filmed in NYC (Escape never goes anywhere near it, a few exterior second-unit shots aside), and it seems like the “before” shot to Escape’s after – a city covered in graffiti and bruises. But – after all – they managed to shoot a movie there, so how dangerous could it have really been? One can only wonder what actual street gangs up in Pelham Park must have thought while watching the filming, with all the colorful extras racing to and fro and every gang, nearly, colorfully multiracial (a detail that never jibed with my dad, for whom Escape was better since it had Adrienne Barbeau, end of story). And if some of the screenings were rocked by gang violence, it was hardly widespread, merely an indication how close to the truth the film was.

Escape, on the other hand, avoids the truth of the moment and just looks to the popcorn kicks of tomorrow. Deservedly, both have endured as classics of their time. But with this new Blu-ray, Escape steps out of its own shadow and stands taller—and maybe even truer—than all others.

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The extras include a great Carpenter-Russell commentary track, recorded in 1995 for the old laserdisc (still two years before the film is set, but after “Buzzkill” Giuliani had supplanted laissez-faire mayor Dinkins, thus ensuring the film’s dystopian NYC vision not come to pass). At the time, Carpenter was married to Barbeau and Russell to Season Hubley, both of whom appear in the film. Hubley plays a punk rock chick who almost gets with Snake before she’s sucked under the Chock Full o’Nuts floorboards by crazy C.H.U.D-ish mole men. Barbeau’s role is bigger, and man does Russell go off on how hot Barbeau is, but it shows you what good friends they are, and how weird Hollywood is, and listening to it creates a shiver with the realization of just how close to an image pimp a director married to a sexy actress kind of is1; fans know the Carpenter-Russell commentaries are in a rarified class – standing proud with only Ridley Scott’s Alien commentary and Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm – as far as director commentaries that are consistently hilarious, laid-back, informative, and able to create the feel commentaries should, that of watching the movie with cool friends in the room, who just happened to have shot it. That kind of thing wouldn’t wash today (even the ’90s still had some pre-PC freedom) and so stands with the film itself as a great marker for a vanished time and place. We also learn the full story of the film’s cavernous burnt-out sets: a fire had destroyed most of central St. Louis, Missouri, and Carpenter had been given permission to film there, wherever he wanted – including the giant cavernous train station, and in amidst the rubble, and so was able to create elaborate lighting and sets in the outdoors (such as the great airplane crash in the middle of the street, with isolated pockets of fire and wreckage lighting up the sides of the buildings).

Even if you already have the extras and the most recent DVD from MGM, this is a substantial upgrade and worth it just for the beauty of all that glowing orange in the improved depth of field. Shout always puts in the work, but never to the point of the kind of “edge enhancement” and “digital noise reduction” that makes rooms seem airless, complexions waxy, and foregrounds unnaturally outlined. The image is better than ever, but, like most all Shout Blu-rays of classic ’70s and ’80s films – and they’ve been putting out a lot – it still looks like a movie, by which I mean with film grain and the odd splice damage. But for fans that’s just part of the charm, as in the artificially added film damage in, say, Quentin and Rodriguez’ Grindhouse. So even if you aren’t nostalgic for the heady sense of danger and decadence, do yourself a favor and crash the pod down into Carpenter country – an alternate reality where the Dinkins-Koch era NYC was allowed to flourish until the goddamned city collapsed under its own weight, becoming a massive condemned hell hole. As the US continues to have a higher percent of its population in prison than any other country2 , it still resonates as timely and relevant as a skull-crack head butt on a punk show slam dance, oh excuse me, “mosh pit.”

  1. EK – Pimps: The Devil’s Subjects for an examination of Roger Vadim and John Derek: Acidemic #5 – 2007. http://www.acidemic.com/id96.html []
  2. Roy Walmsley (November 21, 2013). World Prison Population List (tenth edition). International Centre for Prison Studies. Retrieved July 11, 2014. []