Escape from New York (Collector's Edition) Review
John Carpenter’s 1981 film takes place in an alternate 1997, with war between the East and the West resulting in the breakdown of law and order in the United States. Overwhelmed by the crime explosion, the US Govt. seals off Manhattan Island and turns it into a vast maximum security prison designed to house the country’s burgeoning criminal population. Snake Plissken, a decorated war hero turned notorious thief, is about to be deposited inside the facility when fate intervenes, as the President’s plane has been hijacked on the way to a crucial summit of world leaders and has crashed into the fortified city. Bob Hauk, Commissioner of the militarised US Police Force which guards the prison, offers his one-eyed captive a deal: retrieve the President and the vital time-sensitive information he was carrying within 22 hours and Snake's a free man. If he doesn’t comply he’s dead - either from being locked up in New York or from the micro explosives that've been implanted in his neck - so Snake’s only choice is to become the first man to Escape from New York.
Escape... came in the midst of a quite extraordinary period of creative output from Carpenter, resulting in classics both cult and genre-defining, starting with the space oddity Dark Star in 1974 and culminating with the body-shock masterpiece The Thing in 1982 (which wasn’t well received at the time but has rightly been acknowledged since). The films from that period all share Carpenter’s disdain for authority to one degree or another but none more so than Escape..., which was written with the help of Nick Castle and produced by Carpenter's long-time associate Debra Hill. And in Kurt Russell the director had found a kindred spirit, someone who really identified with his outlook and who was the perfect choice to embody Snake, the gravelly-voiced outlaw at the centre of the story. Russell makes no bones about Clint Eastwood being the inspiration for the performance and it wasn't the first time that Carpenter had looked to Westerns for, ah, 'guidance'. But it’s no mere pastiche, it’s more of an affectionate tip of the hat and Russell makes the character his own (the eye-patch is a simple but effective way of distancing Snake visually from Sergio Leone's amoral gunslinger). The twist is that Snake isn't fighting for a pot of gold, only for the ability to carry on breathing, and the urgency that drives the character onwards makes him more of a dangerous desperado than Clint’s Spaghetti Western anti-hero ever was.
Still, if you're going to riff on one of America's most beloved cinematic icons, then who better to have sitting across from him than Lee Van Cleef, old Angel Eyes himself? Van Cleef plays Hauk and he's a great addition to the cast, that vulpine face of his always engendering a sense of latent unease. Ernest Borgnine also brings some old fashioned star quality as Cabbie, the genial storyteller who transports Snake from place to place. Isaac Hayes plays The Duke, the psychotic ruler of New York, with Harry Dean Stanton as Brain, the Duke's technical genius who keeps the gasoline flowing and the lights working. The rest of the cast is filled out with members of Carpenter's usual repertory: Donald Pleasance is the President, Tom Atkins is Rehme, one of Hauk's underlings, Charles Cyphers gets a smaller role as the ineffectual Secretary of State, Adrienne Barbeau (then Carpenter's wife) is Maggie, Brain's trigger-happy girlfriend, and Frank Doubleday is Romero, the offbeat lackey of The Duke.
Along with They Live, Escape... ranks as one of Carpenter’s most politically-charged movies, and his thinly-veiled hatred of the system has never been quite as prescient as it was here. His generalisation of the police force becoming an army unto itself, kitted out with combat gear and assault rifles, has become chilling reality, and not only that, we’ve recently seen evidence of it with the protests in Ferguson, Missouri not far from where Escape's city streets were actually filmed! And although the allusion of Manhattan – home to Wall St. and America’s bankers – being this den of thieves and cutthroats was hardly original even for 1981, it’s gained more traction in the aftermath of the recent financial crash. The depiction of the US President as a bit of a self-serving buffoon is another of Carpenter’s satirical jabs (which came along well before Dubya was elected President) and it adds another layer of subtext to what could’ve been just another dystopian exploitation flick.
But perhaps that last statement sells Carpenter short as the movie looks fantastic too, it was never just going to be schlock and awe. The 'make do' indie sensibility which drove his early filmmaking efforts meant that they got maximum impact for their limited budgets and Escape... is no exception. The urban blight of downtown St. Louis filled in for the streets of New York, having been dressed with all kinds of junk by canny production designer Joe Alves, who even scrounged up an old DC-8 plane which became the downed Presidential aircraft in one of the movie's most striking images. A huge industrial complex stood in for the Liberty Island HQ of the USPF, starting on a shot of the real Lady Liberty and ending up 3,000 miles away on the Sepulveda Dam in California in one seamless camera move thanks to a crafty edit. If I was being churlish I'd say we could’ve done with just a couple more shots of NY landmarks to add some more authenticity – if the remake ever goes ahead there’ll be a Times Square shot for sure – but as it is they did a remarkable job with the budget they had; between $5-7 million dollars depending on who you talk to.
The widescreen images from Director of Photography Dean Cundey also go a long way to establishing the mood and making the movie look far more expensive than it actually was. The development of new high speed lenses allowed for minimal amounts of light - all the better to hide the seams, as well as to add to the burned-out vibe of the city - and the uncorrected mercury vapour street lights give the exteriors a sickly colour wash which suggests a feeling of decay in the Big Apple. Carpenter’s love for Steadicam, previously used to such mesmerising effect in Halloween, is also evident, adding a touch of class as the camera glides about as if it’s on rails but with no dolly required. And it’d be remiss of me not to mention the music; Carpenter and Alan Howarth's first collaboration created another indelible synth soundscape with a main theme that you'll be humming for days afterwards.
All in all, Escape from New York is a cynical, world-weary vision of the (then) future that seems to get better with age, and it's been a treat to revisit it for this review.
US distributor label Shout! Factory has released the movie in a 2-disc Blu-ray collector’s edition which is LOCKED to region A. It’s housed in a slipcase highlighting Paul Shipper’s newly-commissioned art (it’s not one of his best, but it still looks mighty fine), with a reversible cover for the inner keepcase which also has the original poster art.
According to Shout this edition sports a brand-new transfer, a “2K high-definition scan” of the IP to be exact, and it’s presented in the original 2.35 (approx.) widescreen aspect as per Carpenter’s long-held love of 35mm anamorphic. Straight away I noticed the slight instability of the main titles which made me think this couldn’t be a new pin-registered scan, seeing as the juddering titles are exactly the same on the 2010 MGM Blu-ray (which, incidentally, also features a true HD transfer unlike the upscaled monstrosity which StudioCanal shat out for the European Blu-ray). But when the ‘NOW’ caption appears it bobs about independently from the ‘1997’ above it, so the juddering appears to be baked in to the shot itself as part of the original composite, due to imperfect registration of the elements. There is however an issue that is exclusive to this new transfer: there’s some shimmering and aliasing on slightly slanted surfaces throughout the film, like on the tail of Snake’s glider as he approaches it on the airfield. If I were to guess I’d say it’s the result of a mediocre 2K to HD downscale on Shout’s behalf, as there’s no such issue with the MGM disc.
Detail levels are on par with the MGM Blu-ray which may surprise some, seeing as it’s a brand-new scan, but due to the anamorphic lensing there’s a LOT of softness in the original photography as shot, and I’m not confident that much more sharpness could be coaxed from it. Dean Cundey revelled in using the aforementioned new high-speed Panavision glass to light the movie as dimly as possible, but the trade-off is that these lenses carried even more distortion & flares than normal. And the wider the lens the greater the distortion becomes, as the centre of the frame is often sharp enough but the periphery often gets fuzzier and fuzzier, to the point where a three-shot of Romero, Brain and Maggie looks almost completely out of focus (which may have been the case anyway!). Anamorphic demands a lot of precision with controlling the depth of field, especially if shooting wide open to gain back a bit of exposure in lower light scenes, and even though there are some superb uses of rack-focus I can’t shake the impression that this movie will always be soft, soft, soft. That said, the iffy downscaling hasn’t helped the vertical resolution to be represented at its fullest in 1080p, though I'm pleased that Shout resisted the temptation to sharpen the hell out of it.
Escape... was NOT shot on the new high-speed stocks of the period so it’s not an intrusively grainy film, but there's certainly a dusting of it which gets chunkier during the opticals, like the crane up the wall at the beginning which hides a dissolve into the ‘top of the wall’ set. Shout’s video encoding always seems to create slightly coarser grain than usual and the image is indeed a touch noisier than the MGM encode, but it’s not an overriding distraction. What is a bit more distracting is that there’s more in the way of dirt and scratches on the Shout version, and there’s a small blue line in the middle of the screen (a scratch on the negative, in all probability) which comes and goes throughout the movie. It’s a pity that Shout’s budget doesn’t extend to painting out stuff like that, but what can you do? That slipcover’s got to be paid for somehow…
Colour and brightness are the two biggest issues that set this new transfer apart from the MGM version. The MGM has more of a subdued palette and a reddish push, and it features more aggressive colour-correction of the scenes inside Liberty Island headquarters lit with fluorescents (which read as a very strong green when uncorrected). But those scenes have a noticeable cyan tint to them in the Shout, which has more saturation in general and a slightly more sun-tanned cast to the skin tones. (Both discs have a strong green-ish hue on the St. Louis exteriors caused by the street lights, as mentioned higher up the page.) The raised brightness of the Shout lets us see into the dimly-lit murk a bit easier than on the MGM disc, and thankfully it doesn’t come at the expense of washed-out black levels which are still good and deep, but it does cause some slight blooming of highlights. It’s not a bad effort overall, it’s just not a particularly polished one either.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is, to all intents and purposes, identical to that heard on the MGM Blu-ray. The movie was originally mixed in Lt-Rt Dolby Stereo so the 5.1 isn’t some revisionist rebuild, it’s a respectful enough expansion of the original (a lossless 2.0 track is also provided on this disc). Dialogue is mixed a little lower than it is on the 2.0, which isn’t a problem the nearer you get to reference level, although it does sound just a touch strained at times. The stock sound effects lack the snap and clarity of modern recordings (Carpenter also wanted a more futuristic sound to the gunfire) so gunshots and body blows carry little heft, but the music sounds good, with crisp separation across the fronts and some bleed into the rears. The rears carry more of a discrete ambience in the 5.1 track, like during the sequence when Snake drives down Broadway and the crazies hurl missiles at the car. The rears sound flat and muddled in the 2.0 (decoded in Pro-Logic IIx) while there are some clearly delineated effects in the 5.1. There’s not much in the way of bass, though that’s not to say that it sounds thin and reedy because it’s not, it's reasonably full-bodied. Just don't expect too many fireworks from this mix and you'll be fine.
The extras are comprised of a selection culled from the MGM Special Edition DVD with some newly added goodies. The extant material includes: two audio commentaries (Debra Hill & Joe Alves/Carpenter & Russell); the informative 23-minute Return to Escape from New York featurette; the original ‘bank robbery’ opening to the movie with/without Carpenter commentary; some photo galleries and 2 teaser trailers, although the main theatrical trailer is missing. These features have been upscaled (where applicable) from SD into HD and they look absolutely awful, with massive line gaps. Some of this stuff wasn’t the best quality anyway, like the deleted opening scene which looks like it’s come from 1” tape, but now they look even worse. The photo galleries are proper HD, thankfully.
Shout’s new HD features include: Big Challenges in Little Manhattan, a 14-minute interview with Bob and Dennis Skotak about the visual effects; Scoring The Escape, a 19-minute pow-wow with Alan Howarth regarding the magnificent music; On Set With John Carpenter, a 10-minute selection of Kim Gottlieb-Walker's photos from the shoot accompanied by an interview with her; I Am Taylor, almost 9 minutes of chat with Joe Unger who played Snake’s ill-fated accomplice in the deleted opening scene (interspersed with newly sourced outtakes, which makes me wonder why they didn’t rebuild the opening scene in HD if they had access to the vaults); and My Night On Set, 5 minutes with filmmaker David DeCoteau who reminisces about an evening he spent on the shoot. Last up is a fresh audio commentary with Dean Cundey and Adrienne Barbeau, moderated by horror aficionado Sean Clark. It takes a bit of coaxing from Clark to get them going because neither of them have seen the movie in years, but Cundey's pretty forthcoming whereas Barbeau's recollections are more limited.
Shout! Factory has brought Escape from New York to ‘Collector’s Edition’ Blu-ray with reasonable video quality, serviceable sound and an excellent lineup of special features (some new, some old). Outside of Halloween’s numerous re-issues this is probably the best set of features ever assembled for a John Carpenter movie, so for that alone it should be celebrated. For the new transfer, not so much. If you’re capable of multi-region playback and are a fan of the film then it gets a solid recommendation from me.
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