Escape From New York (1981)
by Steve Habrat
In the stretch of films that John Carpenter made from 1978 to 1982, Escape From New York may be my least favorite of the films that also included Halloween, The Fog, and The Thing. It is these four films that are perhaps the most prolific films of his career (I should also throw in Assault of Precinct 13 and Big Trouble in Little China) and all have their own respectable cult following. Escape From New York is probably his most eccentric film in this stretch, one that broke the horror mold that he was falling into. Escape From New York ventures into science fiction and action territory (Carpenter explored science fiction with his debut film Dark Star in 1974) and the result is a fairly mixed bag of masculine 80’s clichés, inconsistent action sequences, and sputtering suspense. Still, I am willing to forgive in most of these areas but the one that really hurts is the lack of a suspenseful atmosphere that I feel Carpenter did so well. He would return to form, thankfully, in with his 1982 science-fiction chiller The Thing. There would be some magic found in Escape From New York, this first pairing of Carpenter and Kurt Russell, a match made in badass heaven.
Escape From New York invites us into a dystopian world where, in 1988, crime rose 400%, causing the U.S. government to construct a giant wall surrounding New York City that turns the greatest city in the world into a sprawling maximum-security prison. The year is 1997 and Air Force One has crashed into the dangerous streets of the prison, streets that are crawling with psychos and criminals. The President (Played by Donald Pleasance) was on his way to a three-way summit meeting between the U.S., China, and the Soviet Union for a discussion on nuclear fusion, a meeting he is desperately needed at. Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Played by Lee Van Cleef) enlists the help of scowling ex-soldier turned criminal Snake Plissken (Played by Kurt Russell), who is facing a life sentence behind the city walls. Hauk tells Plissken that if he retrieves the President in twenty-four hours, he will pardon Plissken of his sentence. Plissken reluctantly agrees and travels into the grungy wasteland where he finds himself facing a relentless army of bloodthirsty criminals who all want him dead. Along the way, he runs into some old acquaintances and faces off against the sinister Duke (Played by Isaac Hayes), who plans to use the President as his key to freedom.
It’s almost impossible not to read Escape From New York as a faint satire of the crime that ran rampant in New York City in the 1970’s into the 1980’s. The 1980’s and early 1990’s saw some of the worst of the crime. Escape From New York saw itself released in 1981, right in the midst of the flurry of crime and right at the start of the Regan Presidency. Escape From New York has a heavy military and police presence within the film, masked soldiers prowling the tops of the prison and helicopters swooping in to shoot and kill any prisoner that looks like they are attempting an escape. When the film is mirroring the uncontrollable crime of New York City and Regan’s focus on military expansion, Escape From New York is witty, cynical and, yes, tense in some respects. You do feel uneasy because you don’t really know the terrors that lie beyond those walls and there is the paranoia of war right around the corner. Even the early scenes, where Carpenter keeps many of the psychos in the shadows are a bit unsettling, but then he turns the lights on and allows the sun to come up to chase all those demons out of the shadows and into the sewers.
Escape From New York does do a good job at creating a dystopian world that is admirable in the attention to detail. While watching it, I could completely see this grungy vision of New York City being completely plausible for the time in which it was released. Plissken is warned not to venture into the subways or into certain parts of the city by its wary prisoners, the one’s with hints of good within them. Shadowy silhouettes scamper through the streets, evocative of homeless street dwellers calling the grime caked darkness home. The effects are also quite impressive, especially when you keep in mind that the film was made for a whopping six million, which by today’s standards wouldn’t get you far at all. At times, it is a bit obvious that Carpenter is filming miniatures and a sequence involving a glider tumbling down the side of the World Trade Center looks a bit dated, but outside of that, the film has aged very well.
Escape From New York would not be the classic that it is considered if it didn’t have Kurt Russell in the lead as Snake Plissken. Plissken is almost always as cool as a cucumber, his voice just above a whisper as he tiptoes around the littered streets with an intimidating machine gun. Plissken practically becomes the definition of the strong silent type, even when he is thrown in a wrestling ring with a gigantic brawler who is looking to pull Plissken’s head from his body. It was this film that revealed the peanut butter and jelly pairing of John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, Carpenter dreaming up perfect one-liners for Russell to mumble before he aims a gun or throws a punch. The writing would really take shape in The Thing, the film that contains one of Russell’s greatest one-liners, but Russell sure gets to have some pokerfaced fun here (Hauk: “Plissken? Plissken, what are you doing?” Snake: “Playing with myself! I’m going in!”). Escape From New York also features a few other Carpenter alums, Pleasance as the half-hearted President and Adrienne Barbeau as the curvy and dangerous Maggie. Harry Dean Stanton, who would go on to appear in Carpenter’s 1983 film Christine, has some fun as the shifty Brain, who betrayed Plissken in the past.
Escape From New York leaves the viewer wanting more and not particularly in a good way. I wanted more development of Isaac Hayes’ Duke, a villain we mostly only hear about and when we see him, he never really strikes fear into our hearts. Lee Van Cleef’s Hauk just jogs around from behind computer screens to a helicopter and back again. Stanton and Barbeau both seem to be having some fun in Carpenter’s wasteland, Barbeau overjoyed to be reunited wit her The Fog director, but their characters aren’t really elaborated on, only there to keep Plissken on his toes. Escape From New York belongs to Russell and he is the one who will lure you back behind the walls of the New York City maximum-security prison for repeat viewers. The film is also notable for its satire and political commentary, touches that elevate the film above a mindless science fiction/action throwaway. I would have liked the story to develop a little more, for Plissken to explore a little more of New York City and bump in to a few more baddies. Yet there is enough bloody action to keep us occupied in our visit to this nightmare world and, for those who have never seen it, it is worth seeking the film out to be introduced to the man that is Snake Plissken. I guess that is enough for me to recommend the Escape From New York. If only it had that signature tense Carpenter atmosphere but I guess a guy can dream, right?
Escape From New York is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
It is a damn shame that the double feature ode to exploitation trash of years past Grindhouse flopped at the box office. It is an even bigger shame that most audience members didn’t even try to comprehend what it was that directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino were trying to sell to the audience. The flop turned Grindhouse into a cult classic that, in a way, I’m glad avoided the mainstream and has basically been forgotten by most average moviegoers. More fun for fans of cult cinema. Grindhouse is one of the coolest movies of recent memory, a slaphappy revelry filled with blood, guts, zombies, fast cars, hot chicks, nudity, fake trailers, werewolves, Thanksgiving killers, machete wielding Federales, and more. Can you really argue with any of that? I didn’t think so. The way I see it, Rodriguez and Tarantino came up with an incredibly original idea, harkening back to the grimy double features of the 70’s and 80’s, and in the process, they tried to make going to the movies an event again. How people missed the point of having a little fun at the movies is truly beyond me.
The first half of this bonanza belongs to Robert Rodriguez and his gooey zombie flick Planet Terror. After an opening Go-Go dance from Cherry Darling (Played by Rose McGowan), the rural Texas town that she calls home suddenly is overrun with a nasty virus that turns the citizens from normal people into “sickos”, who crave human flesh. Teaming up with her ex-boyfriend El Wray (Played by Freddy Rodriguez), the syringe shooting Dr. Dakota Block (Played by Marley Shelton), and a slew of others, the group attempts to escape the deadly outbreak but they end up stumbling upon more than safety from the “sickos”. The second half of Grindhouse belongs to Quentin Tarantino and his car chase film Death Proof, which follows a group of hip gals who are involved in the making of a movie. They soon find themselves being tormented by a deranged stunt car driver named Stuntman Mike (Played by Kurt Russell), who enjoys killing young girls with his “death proof” muscle car. Stuntman Mike meets his match when some of the girls begin to fight back against him, turning the tables on the maniac and forcing him into a fight for his own life.
Being a double feature, no portion of Grindhouse is ever a drag but the case could be made that Tarantino’s Death Proof slams on the breaks of this speed demon. The madness hits white-knuckle territory in Planet Terror, which goes for the throat right from the very beginning. It easily outshines Death Proof and is entertaining from the opening Go-Go dance right down to the melting penises at the climax. That does not mean that I dislike Death Proof. Oh no, I absolutely love Death Proof but I feel like it should have been the first film shown and followed up by Planet Terror, which cranks things up to the max. To be honest, I hate separating the two films but it is almost impossible to evaluate Grindhouse without evaluating the films as separate pieces. I do, however, view the entire film, complete with fake trailers, to be one whole movie. It drives me crazy that the films were split up upon their initial release to DVD. I don’t think they hold up well on their own and they desperately need each other for support.
Rodriguez and Tarantino go to great lengths to replicate a night in an old movie palace on 42nd Street. They both digitally went in and scratched the prints up, making them look like two films from the 70’s that were discovered in a filthy theater basement. Rodriguez throws in a gag with a missing reel, creating a massive jump in his film that is added at just the right time. Rodriguez’s Planet Terror brings to mind the Italian zombie films that were favorites among grind house theaters in the late 70’s and early 80’s. He has continuously said that he found inspiration in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie and he throws in a nasty little nod to the film at the end. He also throws in nods to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead, Hell of the Living Dead, and more, none being left out of all the excitement. He also creates a new cult legend with Cherry, who ends up having one of her legs replaced with a machine gun. It is a nifty nod to Evil Dead’s Ash, who is also forced to replace a severed limb with a deadly weapon.
In Death Proof, things are a little more polished and clean, a bit strange when it set against the crude Planet Terror. Packing very few scratches but having chuckle worthy skips in the film; Death Proof is more of a slow build experience. It’s pure Tarantino, featuring tons of drawn out conversations while the camera circles the actors and actresses like a shark. Death Proof ends up a battlefield for Russell and costar Zoe Bell, who plays stunt girl Zoe. Bell, who was a stunt double for Uma Thruman in Kill Bill, shows off her acting skills and ends up almost stealing the show from Russell, who gets to radiate bad boy charisma every time that camera is turned on him. When Tarantino waves the checkered flags and begins the rough car chases, he proves himself to be a master when it comes to adrenaline pumping action sequences. Death Proof ends up borrowing from such films as Vanishing Point, the slasher genre, and is vaguely evocative of Faster, Pussycat… Kill! Kill! and Thriller: A Cruel Picture, allowing the film to morph into an exotic beast all its own.
Grindhouse would not be complete without the four spectacular fake trailers that have been tacked on and they end up surpassing the greatness of the two films. Tarantino and Rodriguez invited fellow exploitation enthusiasts Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects), Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), and Eli Roth (Hostel) to cook up some fake trailers and the results are sheer bliss for horror and exploitation fans. When I initially saw the film, my favorite was easily Roth’s Thanksgiving, which almost pushed the film into an NC-17 rating and it’s not hard to see why. It is so depraved and outrageous, it left me crossing my fingers that they would make it into an actual movie. In the multiple times that I have seen the film since seeing it at the local theater, I have grown like Wright’s Don’t the best. It is hectically comical and bizarre, actually turning out to be pretty frightening despite how weird it is. Zombie leaves his mark with the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink Werewolf Women of the S.S., a nod to Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S. Zombie’s trailer does pack one hell of a big surprise so do not even think about underestimating it. Rodriguez also contributes to the madness with Machete, which opens Grindhouse with a bloody bang, letting us know that Machete “gets the women and kills the bad guys”. Keep your eyes peeled for an awesome cameo from Cheech Marin.
Grindhouse is without question one of my favorite movies of all time. It is the embodiment of why I go to the movies and why I dedicate myself to them. It was nonstop entertainment and lunacy for three fucking hours! I smiled the entire time and happily went back to the theater for seconds and heavily considered thirds. It is a shame the film flopped at the box office, poorly timed with its release (Easter weekend) and languidly marketed, many scratching their heads over the trailer. It didn’t reach a wide audience because mainstream viewers were not in on the joke, missing the point that it was a double feature and the film was purposely bad. As a whole, Grindhouse has a spark that cannot be duplicated and in its wake, there have been a lot of imitators and a minor spike in interest in cult classics and exploitation sleaze. With the spike in interest, it is hard to say that Grindhouse was a dud and hasn’t lived on past its release, rallying new fans everyday to the wonderful trash cinema of past years. The beauty doesn’t stop there, as Grindhouse can also serve as a learning tool, one that introduces viewers to a specific era in cinema and sheds light on an era that was largely forgotten when the movie palaces closed their doors and the drive-ins disappeared. Despite all the intentional mistakes and low budget cheese, Grindhouse is a rare modern film that is perfect, making it a must-see cult-classic.
Grindhouse is available of Blu-ray.
The Thing (2011)
by Steve Habrat
Another month, another horror remake coughed up from lazy Hollywood and this time it’s the prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 chiller The Thing. August saw the remake of another 80’s horror flick, Fright Night, which was playful, spry, and hip. The Thing 2011 fits nicely along with the original 1982 classic, but after establishing no mood, it becomes a showcase for the latest special effects Hollywood has to offer and to be perfectly honest, they are not much to write home about. The creature effects are what made the Carpenter original such a standout. They were appallingly real where here they seem rubbery and computerized. In fact, they are only a notch above direct to DVD effects. The Thing 2011 is also the furthest thing from hip, seeming appropriately old school but never really utilizing the effect (the film begins with the classic Universal Studios logo). It’s drenched in fakery when it could have benefitted from a real scare. It’s also certainly not playful, never elaborating on the original story but rather simply resorting to rehashing the original plot with different actors. It only adds B-movie princess Mary Elizabeth Winstead gripping a flamethrower and a big, laughable UFO at the end.
Remember in the Carpenter original when MacReady (Krut Russell) and the resident doctor ventured into the charred ruins of the Norwegian camp at the beginning of The Thing 1982? The place looked like hell had rained down upon it. It was also especially creepy because our mind filled in what happened to these people. Well, Hollywood found it necessary to show us what happened and it doesn’t look that much different from what happened in the American camp. After a group of Norwegian scientists stumble upon a UFO and a crablike alien buried in the snow of the Arctic, American paleontologist Kate (Played by Winstead) and her partner Adam (Played by Eric Christian Olsen) are recruited by a Norwegian scientist named Dr. Sander Halvorson (Played by Ulrich Thomsen) to come to the site and help them remove the alien from the snow. She takes on the job and upon her arrival, she meets a pair of American pilots Carter and Jameson (Played by Joel Edgerton and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Once the scientists remove the alien from the ice and bring it back to the camp, it soon wakes up and breaks from its icy confines. It begins attacking the scientists one by one and duplicating the helpless saps. Paranoia rips through the group and soon the alien begins rearing it’s fangs and tentacles all over the place, ripping out from heads, arms, stomachs, etc. As the group awaits help to arrive, they desperately search for a way to figure out who is normal and how to quarantine the alien from spreading outside the camp.
This Thing isn’t a terrible movie and it actually has a bit of potential buried beneath the snow and ice. Winstead is a talented actress and her toughness is believable, but she’s not the reluctant hero the MacReady was. Edgerton also attempts to fit ol’ Kurt’s boots but he doesn’t fair any better. The film segues nicely into the ‘82 original and I will pat it on the back for that, but other than that it really seems to have no reason to exist. Furthermore, it’s empty headed and without commentary. The Cold War paranoia was part of what makes the original a classic to this day. It’s a frosted over mirror of paranoia, dread, fear, and suspicion. It comes as no surprise to me because the trailer boasted that the same people who gave George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead a CGI makeover produced this film too. The 2004 Dawn of the Dead was much more fun than The Thing 2011 and that is mostly because it wasn’t afraid to stray a bit from the original concept.
So what exactly is the potential here? For one, the characters could have been a bit more interesting. None of them grabbed me and when one of them crumpled into alien bits, I wasn’t filled empathy. I never really cared. The film could have also had some more memorable moments in the alien department. The original film works because it has moments of pure exhibition. Who will ever forget the severed head sprouting legs and trying to walk off? Or how about a dead man’s chest caving in and revealing a set of teeth, which proceed to bite off another man’s arms? There is nothing like that here and all we get is a computerized dog-like human that crawls around and has two heads. And how about the alien itself? Well, it would have been better left charred and on an autopsy table rather than actually seeing it scamper about the camp. It was creepy never truly knowing what it looked like. I could have also done without the end, which finds several of the characters chasing the alien around its massive UFO. The film climaxes with another perfect grenade toss, unfortunately missing a one liner as good as “Yeah! Well fuck you too!” And how about the blood test in the original? Here, there is nothing that suspenseful and instead we get a tooth-filling test. It never comes close to the unbearable intensity of the original scene.
The Thing 2011 pulls the same stunt as Dawn of the Dead 2004, making the audience sit through the end credits and watch brief flashes of the set up for the original film. Over these scenes, the original Ennio Morricone score slithers over the footage. I kept crossing my fingers for a cameo from MacReady but don’t get your hopes up too high. The Thing 2011 needed to discover it’s own identity and it never does. I never minded sitting through the film and spotting the references to the original, but it became tedious after a while. It never offers up any new information on the alien, just a few minor hints at how it duplicates its prey. None of the explanations are riveting and they slowly suck the terror out of the film. Much like the gooey, roaring antagonist, The Thing 2011 is just a duplication of the 1982 film. And just like any duplication or copy, there are a few imperfections that eventually give it away. And what does The Thing 2011 give away? It slowly reveals that the filmmakers had absolutely no idea how to build upon this story. Grade: C+
The Thing (1982)
by Steve Habrat
Around Halloween, if one was unsure what horror film or films to make the hairs on their arm stand at attention, you can find many in the John Carpenter department. In 1978, Carpenter crafted the classic serial killer flick with Halloween, which spawned several god-awful imitations and limp sequels. In 1980, he spooked us with his campfire ghost tale The Fog, a favorite of mine come Halloween with its disfigured ghost zombies and its ominous atmosphere. In 1982, he delivered The Thing, a heart pounding science fiction horror film that features some truly hideous make-up and puppet effects that have yet to be topped. They fill us to the brink with pure fear and it has one of the most memorable heroes aside from Ripley in Alien: MacReady. Carpenter heavily relies on atmosphere in his horror films, making the environment just as much of a character as Laurie Strode, Stevie Wayne, and MacReady. Whether it’s the stillness of Haddonfield, the looming evil in the small town of Antonio Bay, or the howling winds and whipping snow in Antarctica, these films could scare you without their otherworldly monsters lurking in the shadows. The Thing makes the best use of environment, making the bone freezing chill in the air just as deadly as the enigmatic alien copying it’s prey and becoming almost indistinguishable copies of the paranoid researchers who are slowly turning on each other.
I still believe that Halloween is Carpenter’s masterpiece, the ultimate slasher flick and also one of his most thought provoking films. The Thing, however, is an exercise in how to scare the living hell out of an innocent viewer. From the start, this film is disorienting, gloomy, and isolated, lacking even the slightest bit of hope that help could swoop in at any given moment and save the group of scientists. The way the film springs it’s infected antagonists on the viewer makes every frame an unpredictable nightmare and cloaks us in mistrust. But what really puts The Thing in another world completely is the jaw dropping make-up and puppets that leap out at us and make our skin crawl off the bone and hide under the couch we sit on to watch it. There is some disturbing imagery in this film, steeped more in gore than Halloween and The Fog. Carpenter has a way with monsters and I wish he would grace the silver screen again with another horror film. We need another reason to be afraid of the dark.
Set in the secluded Arctic, a group of American researchers witness a bizarre event when a Norwegian helicopter shows up on the premises tracking a fleeing dog. The helicopter has a sniper on board firing at the dog, desperately trying to kill it. After a freak accident, the helicopter crashes in the American outpost, leaving one American wounded by a stray bullet. Pilot R.J. MacReady (Played by the ultimate cinematic badass Kurt Russell) and Dr. Blair (Played by Wilford Brimley) venture out to find the Norwegian research camp, only to find the camp in ruin and all the foreign researchers dead. The evidence at the foreign camp hints at the discovery of extraterrestrial life, a deadly organism that copies it’s prey and imitates them. After returning to the American outpost with a charred alien body, paranoia grips the group with the researchers turning on each other. After a string of horrifying discoveries and the alien showing it’s repugnant face, the group finds themselves trying to protect themselves from the alien and each other.
Isolation is key in any great horror film, a touch that shakes the viewer up and fries the nerves. There is no hope in this story and things will end badly. THAT is what scares most people. Look at Night of the Living Dead, a film that boasts a remote setting and the threat that no one will help the desperate survivors locked in that iconic farmhouse. I’d compare The Thing to Night of the Living Dead in that regard, along with its jumpy Cold War paranoia. Furthermore, the uninfected men are just as dangerous as the ones who are being mimicked. The isolation, however, is what really makes this film a keeper. Carpenter really gets under our skin by driving the point home that these men are alone. Every time they venture out into the cold and snow, there is an unsettling dread that washes over us. And what if one gets trapped outside? The conditions outside are just as deadly as the ones lurking in the hallways and rec rooms. Carpenter hits us with two monsters, a natural one and an alien one. As their numbers slowly trickle down, you may start to consider getting up and hitting the pause button just to have a moment to calm yourself down.
There are two other reasons The Thing is a horror masterwork even though it was a bomb upon its initial release. Kurt Russell’s MacReady is a classic movie hero and the monster effects that are downright staggering. You can always count on Russell to be an ultimate hardass in any movie that announces his presence. The man is Snake Plissken! Yet I like MacReady for his resourcefulness and his bursts of sarcasm. He will always be standing proud in my mind, armed with dynamite and a flamethrower, looking the roaring beast in the face and after the roaring ends and the growls begin, dryly yelling “Yeah?! Well fuck you too!” and sending a lit stick of dynamite right at the alien. His reassured buoyancy in himself that he is not infected is also positively noted by this movie fan and this lets him sit securely on the great protagonists list. His antagonist is also beyond belief, a true beast from Hell that looks like Satan himself created it. Making awful howling noises and gurgling growls, severed heads sprout legs and walk off, stomachs open up and rip off arms, heads split open and turn into fang riddled jaws, and dogs grow tentacles and morph into towering juggernauts. Some of it really has to be seen to get a good mental image. It’s that rare film where the more you see; the more it leaves you looking like a heap of shivering jelly. It keeps topping itself, only finding competition with that other legendary extraterrestrial horror in Alien.
A nice break from the ghoulies, ghosts, classic movie monsters, zombies, vampires, and slashers, The Thing is a good Halloween freak out. It’s twisting halls forebodingly lit, it’s monsters constantly up to the challenge to leap out and genuinely scare the life out of you, and with a final showdown that only Carpenter himself could pull off, there is a reason this film has evolved into a massive fan favorite in the horror genre. More horror than actual science fiction, The Thing is perfect for Halloween simply because, much like the Halloween season, it’s dependent on the atmosphere. Lacking a clear explanation about the beast (Jason Zinoman would be proud!) and shrouded in mystery, The Thing is a modern classic in monster horror, coming from the studio that knows monsters—Universal Studios. The Thing is a flawless achievement featuring one of the greatest one-liners in movie history. Grade: A