Friday, October 7, 2011


(July 1981, U.S.)

When I first saw John Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK as a young pre-teenager, the idea that the island of Manhattan could one day in the dystopian future of 1997 actually become a walled maximum security prison did not seem so far-fetched to me. After all, it was 1981 and New York City was a frightening crime-ridden shit hole (parts of it still are, in my opinion). That in mind, the film for me has always seemed a lot more terrifying than your average futuristic science fiction film. Even today, look at the blacked-out deserted city streets, the underground-dwelling "crazies" and especially that wild looking street punk with the crazy laugh who looks like a cross between German actor Klaus Kinski and British rocker Billy Idol and tell me if don't start to feel the shivers coming on. The entire film, in fact, feels like one of those low budget, terrifying grindhouse movies you might watch in the middle of the night on 42nd Street.

Back in the day, it seemed that ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK was the coolest movie out there for young kids (despite the R rating) and Kurt Russell's character of Snake Plissken was the coolest character in movies. It was even cool just to say the name...SNAKE PLISSKEN! He's a sentenced criminal, but he's also the anti-hero given the challenge of rescuing the President of the United States (played by Donald Pleasence) whose aircraft just crashed in New York City after a terrorist takeover of Air Force One...and he has just twenty-four hours to do it. Oh, the President's still alive, by the way, because he escaped in the aircraft pod before the plane went down. Just thought I'd make that clear. So, Snake makes his way through the Hellish worlds inside the city to eventually find the President and take on the self-proclaimed, A-Number One, "Duke of New York" (played by Issac Hayes). Now keep in mind as you view this futuristic world of New York City that it becomes pretty damn obvious that this was NOT filmed on location (St. Louis, actually). Regardless, though, there are enough subtle landmarks of the city to temporarily convince you, otherwise - the World Trade Center, the New York Public Library, Central Park and the 59th Street Bridge (69th in the film for some reason), all of them looking quite post-apocalyptic and menacing in appearance.

There is one particular scene that continues to give me an unsettling feeling. Take a look at the moment when Air Force One is headed straight toward the lower part of one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center just before it crashes into another building. John Carpenter filmed this just over twenty years before the events of September 11, 2001 would take place. If ever there was a moment where world history imitated art, it's this. Very frightening, indeed.

Finally, let me just say that when 1997 did finally arrive, New York City, under then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's rule, was not a prison. In fact, it went completely the other way with the demolition of 42nd Street's grindhouse movie theaters and replaced by Broadway theaters and Disney family shows, as well as the expulsion of all the hookers (too bad for that!). It was also in 1997 that I tried to watch the film's sequel, ESCAPE FROM L.A., on HBO. I didn't get past thirty minutes of it. How can any film be considered terrifying when it takes place during the day under the bright California sunshine?? Didn't work for me.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Narrator: "In 1988, the crime rate in the United States rises four hundred percent. The once great city of New York becomes the one maximum security prison for the entire country. A fifty-foot containment wall is erected along the New Jersey shoreline, across the Harlem River, and down along the Brooklyn shoreline. It completely surrounds Manhattan Island. All bridges and waterways are mined. The United States Police Force, like an army, is encamped around the island. There are no guards inside the prison, only prisoners and the worlds they have made. The rules are simple: once you go in, you don't come out."

And thus, the future is NOW.


  1. John Carpenter is the king of 80's movies as far as I was concerned. The Kurt Russell collaborations are always a draw at our house. If you listen to the commentary on the Laserdisc (I think it also appears on the DVD), you will hear two good friends truly enjoying looking back at a good film. I know exactly what you mean about that grindhouse feel to the movie. My kids were not born when Escape From New York came out, I took them to see Escape From L.A. (not a great film but it sounds like you turned it off before you got to Bruce Campbell as the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills. Anyway, the kids loved the character of Snake Plisken so much, they both dressed up for Halloween that year as Snake, My 11 year old and 9 year old daughters. They still say it was their favorite costume from the days of trick or treating.

  2. For me, John Carpenter's reign of success was from 1978 to 1984. After STARMAN, he lost me and (unfortunately) hasn't gotten me back since. Still, between those six years, with CHRISTINE being only an okay film, some awesome work!

  3. What? You don't love Big Trouble in Little China? 1986.