Escape from New York, 1981.
Directed by John Carpenter.
Starring Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau and Tom Atkins.
In 1997, when the US President crashes into Manhattan, now a giant maximum security prison, a convicted bank robber is sent in for a rescue.
Conversations about major big budget genre filmmakers of the 70s and 80s tend to center around Lucas and Spielberg, with Kubrick usually thrown into the mix, but John Carpenter deserves a spot in those talks too, even if he typically worked with a much smaller budget than those guys. Look at Halloween, The Fog, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live, and this review’s subject, Escape from New York: That’s quite a run of films that are well remembered by many fans today, even if they didn’t all set the box office ablaze.
Speaking of blazes: Escape from New York is a fun film to revisit if you grew up during that era, like I did, and enjoy taking a stroll down Nostalgia Lane every once in a while. Sure, the central premise that crime is so bad Manhattan has become a prison is pretty silly, and the special effects by Roger Corman’s crew aren’t quite up to par with what ILM was doing back then, but it’s one of those films that seems to be giving its audience a nod and wink with every plot turn, as if to say, “Buckle up and enjoy the ride, folks.” It’s hard not to think fondly of such a movie.
I won’t recite the plot, since I’m sure you know it, so I’ll skip ahead to the bonus features in this double Blu-ray set from Shout! Factory, starting with a trio of commentary tracks. The first one, featuring Carpenter and star Kurt Russell, was originally recorded way back in the laserdisc days – It keeps getting ported from one home video release to the next because it’s a great listen. The two of them are obviously good friends who enjoy reminiscing about working together, and they tell some great stories from the making of the film.
The second track, with production designer Joe Alves and producer Debra Hill, who passed away in 2005, was recorded for the 2003 Collector’s Edition DVD from MGM. It focuses more on location shooting and other practical matters of film production, and it repeats a bit of the material found elsewhere on this set, but it’s still a worthwhile listen for fans. The final track is a new one with actress Adrienne Barbeau and director of photography Dean Cundey, with moderation by horror fan Sean Clark. Like the Carpenter and Russell track, it has a good mix of topics, although it’s missing their warm camaraderie.
If you’re wondering what else has been ported from previous releases, the excised opening bank robbery scene is back, along with the optional commentary by Carpenter and Russell. It’s a scene that many fans had been anxious to see when it was finally made public, although it’s obvious why it was cut, since it adds very little to the story and, as Carpenter notes, makes Snake Plissken come off a bit soft. It’s in pretty rough shape, but there must be a better version available somewhere, as evidenced by the much-better-looking clips from it found in the new interview with Joe Unger, who played Plissken’s robbery accomplice, Taylor. That Q&A doesn’t add much to fans’ understanding of the film’s history – It plays like a “I’m just happy to be here” interview with a pro athlete, which is understandable since Unger was only in that scene and had no involvement in the rest of the filming.
Also returning from earlier releases are the photo galleries, the theatrical trailers, and the Return to Escape from New York featurette, which runs about 23 minutes and serves up interviews with Carpenter, Russell, Barbeau, Hill, Alves, Cundey, co-screenwriter Nick Castle, and actor Harry Dean Stanton. Too bad it’s not longer, as this is the kind of film that would benefit from a nice long 90-minute or two-hour documentary that covers its creation from start to finish.
However, this set makes up for that a bit with its other new bonus materials, starting with a 14-minute look at the visual effects, which includes interviews with some of the key technical crew. Fun trivia fact for those who don’t know: James Cameron, who cut his teeth in Corman’s studio, worked on the effects for Escape from New York, including a Manhattan skyline matte painting. There’s also a nearly 20-minute piece with Alan Howarth, who worked on the film’s score with Carpenter – That one goes on a bit longer than it needs to, although it’s interesting to learn that there’s a demand for Howarth to do live performances of the music.
Finally, we have 10 minutes with Kim Gottlieb-Walker, who was the set photographer and has some fun stories to tell, and a five-minute interview with filmmaker David DeCoteau, who worked at Corman’s studio back then and reminisces about being around when some last-minute shots were filmed for the movie.
If you’re a fan of Escape from New York, this is a no-brainer purchase. Even if you own any of the previous home video releases, there’s enough new material here to warrant picking up this Collector’s Edition.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★