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.
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