Director: John Carpenter
Writers: John Carpenter and Nick Castle
Cast: Kurt Russell, Harry Dean Stanton, Lee Van Cleef, Adrienne Barbeau
Length: 99 min
Label: Scream Factory
Release Date: April 21, 2015
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1
Audio: English: DTS-HD Master 5.1 and 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH
- Newly commissioned Audio Commentary with Adrienne Barbeau and Dean Cundey/li>
- Audio Commentary with Kurt Russell and John Carpenter
- Audio Commentary with Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves
- Big Challenges in Little Manhattan: The Visual Effects of Escape from New York
- Scoring the Escape: A Discussion with Composer Alan Howarth
- On Set with John Carpenter: The Images of Escape from New York
- I Am Taylor: An Interview with Actor Joe Unger
- My Night on Set: An Interview with Filmmaker David DeCoteau
- Return to Escape from New York: Vintage featurette
- Deleted Scene with optional Commentary
- Theatrical Trailers
- 2 Photo Galleries
“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 so begins John Carpenter’s seminal 1981 classic, Escape from New York. The year is 1997, almost a decade after country’s descent into disparity. While we are not given a strong sense of the world that surrounds the imprisoned island of Manhattan, Carpenter’s dark, brooding visuals suggest something nearing a dystopian post-apocalypse. Order is intact but is in a state of constant threat. The country’s one chance at World Peace lies in the contents of a cassette tape on board a plane with the President headed to Geneva. When the plane is hijacked by the National Liberation Front and crashes over Manhattan, the President (Donald Pleasance) manages to escape in a safety pod but is quickly apprehended and held hostage by the leading gang of New York. The leader of the gang, Duke (Isaac Hayes), has only one demand in exchange for the return of the President: the release of his crew from the island. With the president’s life on the line, police commissioner Bob Hauk (played with absolute reverence by the iconic Lee Van Cleef) turns to the only man he knows capable — or perhaps crazy — enough to pull off the job, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell).There are very few films that deliver on the same level as Escape from New York. With Escape we get a completely uninhibited director at the top of his game. With this film, Carpenter was working with a significantly larger budget than he had ever been granted — keeping in mind that we are still talking about a relatively low budget film — and you can tell that he had a great deal of fun creating a completely unique world. It would impossible to calculate the impact of Escape from New York, but it has influenced countless films in its wake — anything from cheap knock offs to large-scale blockbusters. In many ways, it is a film that — despite its immense following — has failed to get the respect it deserves. Despite an incessant insistence that Blade Runner revolutionized the science-fiction genre through the hybridization of genres, with Escape, Carpenter beat Ridley Scott to the chase by a full year, creating a tonally different but stylistically similar film. One aspect of the film that remains impressive, even 30 years after its release, is Carpenter’s remarkable restraint and confidence. Despite shooting an alternative opening that was later ditched, Carpenter spends the first 15-some-odd minutes building only the landscape of the film. As a result of this, Snake’s introduction on film could even be overlooked, as the first time he is depicted on screen he is dwarfed by his surroundings. It is a strange stylistic choice but, in doing so, Carpenter grants the aesthetic of the film a much greater importance, allowing the remaining hour to really build his thematic stage and character arcs. It is really to Russell’s credit that Carpenter is able to achieve this, because Russell’s performance is so strong that had he only appeared on screen for even five minutes the lasting impression would ruminate for days. In fact, what makes Escape such a strong piece of genre cinema is the fact that every single actor treats the film with an amount of respect rarely seen in “B” films. Russell, Hayes, Cleef, Adrienne Barbeau, Pleasance, Tom Atkins, Ernest Borgnine, Frank Doubleday, and, of course, the legendary Harry Dean Stanton; the film reads like a laundry list of beloved cult actors, and each one delivers one of the most impressive performances of their careers. They respected John and his work, and that admiration is present on screen. Beyond the performances, there are countless aspects of this film that deserve close attention, but I will narrow it down to two: the cinematography and the score. With the exception of Debra Hill — who remains criminally overlooked —, the unsung hero of most of Carpenter’s most iconic work is his cinematographer Dean Cundey. At the risk of hyperbole, Cundey is among the best of any cinematographer ever to work, and the negligent recognition that he receives outside of the bounds of genre criticism remains baffling. For Escape, Cundey helps to create a beautifully repugnant world. Championing his stylistic flare for backlighting fog to create extra atmosphere, the lighting in Escape is on par, if not exceeding, his work on either Halloween or The Fog. You can tell that Cundey is working with very minimal resources but he manages to utilize the low lighting conditions to his advantage. In addition to the Cundey’s work, Carpenter’s score helps to usher in the retro-futuristic, dystopian vibe. Decaying analog synths unnerve the viewer, giving the film an aura of suspense. The film importantly marks the first collaboration between Carpenter with Alan Howarth, which would last a few films and would produce some of Carpenters best scores. Depending on your source, Howarth’s involvement in the creation varies (Carpenter claims that Howarth only assisted in production, while Howarth claims that he had an involvement in writing and supplementing the work), but it cannot be denied that with Howarth’s involvement, Carpenter’s score became bigger and more exciting.
Ok, look, there are two things that must be taken into account when we discuss any restoration of this film. First, the film was shot using extremely low lighting conditions, under a pretty tight budget. Second, MGM owns the rights for the film and clearly have no interest in giving the film the real 4K (or more) treatment it deserves. With that said, the transfer that Scream Factory has acquired is — in my opinion — the best on the market. There are those that will claim that the MGM release, despite being extremely dark, is more faithful to the source materials. I find this hard to believe. Is the print perfect? No, but I also find it hard to believe that we will see a more perfect release, at least not on Blu-Ray. Perhaps the future of home video will grant us a better looking version of Escape from New York, but for my money, this version is absolutely fine. Despite the brighter image, you don’t really get the impression that much digital tinkering was done to the print as the blacks are still nicely intact. Further, the overall grain structure of the film is left present. There are some focus issues that could be confused with a softening of the image, but I think that they are most likely the result of shooting under low light conditions with a wide aperture opening and a low depth of field.
The disc features both a 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mix. Each track offers a strong representation of the film’s aural qualities, but, as is often the case, the 5.1 is the best bang for your buck. Perhaps even more so with this film, as the added room and scope of the mix really helps to develop the tension needed in some of the scenes. In both mixes, Carpenter’s score is beautifully complimented, so if you are concerned about either one giving the score short shrift, lay your worries to rest.
If you had any reservations about holding off for some potential better release slated for the future, surely the extra features will change that. For the relatively small price tag, the added features included on this disc alone justify its cost. First, Scream have provided three commentary tracks, including a newly commissioned one with Barbeau and Cundey and two ported over tracks featuring Carpenter and Russell, and Hill and Production Designer Joe Alves. In addition, there are three really great new featurettes tracking the special effects, the composition work with Howarth, and the on-set photography with Kim Gottlieb-Walker. Each one of these pieces helps to build towards the puzzle that is Escape from New York, delivering funny on-set anecdotes as well as practical information about the production. They are the kinds of features that you will find yourself revisiting. Also newly commissioned is an interview with Joe Unger about his cut role as Snake’s sidekick Taylor. While Unger is candid and quite charming, the piece plays a little long and even becomes a bit repetitious. As a separate feature, Scream provides the full cut scene but the quality is pretty abysmal. Still, it is worth a watch if you haven’t had a chance to see it thus far. The strange thing is that during the interview with Unger, there are clips from the cut scene that are of very high quality, begging the question as to why they are not that way in the cut scene. Either way, this is of only minimal concern. Along the same lines as the interview with Unger, a short piece with filmmaker David DeCoteau about his time as a temporary PA on set of the film is largely forgettable. Finally, Scream ported over an older mini-doc on the film that is definitely worth a watch as it features interviews with Carpenter and Russell, as well as much of the rest of the cast and crew. It is a shame that more involvement with Russell and Carpenter couldn’t be arranged for the new release, but what is here is very impressive.
Escape from New York is a film that, no matter how many times I watch, it feels like I am watching it for the first time. It is a film that I do not hesitate to call a masterpiece. This is not one of those cases of a cult auteur with limited appeal. No, Carpenter is the real deal, worthy of a place among the greatest directors to grace cinema’s history. He is a man of so many ideas, and the best part is he delivers them in strides. Escape represents one of his purest films, an uncompromising work of artistic integrity. It is a film that only improves with age, and its comment on society remains as relevant now as it did in 1981 when it was released. Carpenter always strove to be the Howard Hawks of his generation, and I defy anyone to disprove that he isn’t. Maybe we can’t call this definitive release of the movie, because who knows what the future will hold, but I can damn well say that this is the definitive release now. Over the last few years, Scream Factory have poured so much loved and dedication into seeing Carpenter’s work presented in the best way they possibly can, and this release of Escape from New York represents the pinnacle of that effort. It is simply a must-own for genre fans.