Blu-Ray: ‘Escape From New York’ (1981)

❉  Carpenter’s vision, presented in a beautiful 4K remaster, still impresses with its sense of time, place and attitude.

“At the time of its release, Russell was still mainly known for the series of Disney comedies he appeared in. What better way to declare his new direction with the legendary Snake Plissken? No anti-hero onscreen has managed to match the sense of badass mystery and no fucks given attitude that Russell effortlessly gifted the audience with here in 1981.”

1985, early summer. I am eight years old. My family have been in possession of a video recorder for a couple of months now and a video library has just opened in the small village where I live. Six long racks cover one wall. The bottom row contains all the kids stuff; Disney cartoons, knock-offs of Disney cartoons. Five rows up on the left-hand corner is the horror section. Half of these tapes are certificated 18, the other half have the letter X emblazoned on them alongside garishly painted displays of torture camps that seem to be run exclusively by female Nazis. The other tapes have various monsters, creatures or men wearing motorcycle helmets or balaclavas wielding blood spattered tools. It’s all pretty scary. The boxes on the shelf above all have large breasted women in various states of undress. Their red lipstick smiles both fascinate and intimidate me and my friends even if we can’t reach the shelf to get a proper look, even on our tip toes. In this VHS age you never know what you’re going to get, no matter what the box promises.

I wander these shelves from one end to the other not knowing what I want. My dad, no doubt getting impatient with me, picks a card from a box making the decision for me as he goes to the counter. I look again at the box. Underneath the title, Escape From New York, the head of the Statue of Liberty lies on its side on a dark street, hordes of deranged people wielding weapons rush from behind it. Up front a one-eyed man in a black t-shirt dragging another dishevelled man and holding an Uzi blasting away at whatever is coming near him. I am intrigued.

Two hours later I am convinced that I have just seen the coolest film ever made.

Thirty-three years later I watch it again, after how many viewings I could not tell you, for review purposes. It is still the coolest film ever made. John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, now presented in a beautiful 4K remaster from Studio Canal, dazzles more than ever with its influential high concept vision of the lawless Big Apple. Aspects of it can certainly be considered vintage, remember when 1997 was a far-away prospect? Paradoxically somehow it has not really dated that much thanks mainly in part to its depiction of a near fascistic, heavily armed police force which still seems like it could just be coming around the corner. Never mind the fact that the macguffin that holds the key to not only our heroes’ survival but the worlds’, is an audio tape, a C-60 by the look of it, or that the ticking clock aspect of the film is illustrated by a chunky digital watch, Carpenter’s vision still seriously impresses with its sense of time, place and attitude.

While The Thing may be both Carpenter’s and Kurt Russell’s crowning glory, Escape From New York more than holds its own. At the time of its original release, Russell was still mainly known for the series of Disney comedies he regularly appeared in. What better way to declare his new career direction with the legendary Snake Plissken? No anti-hero onscreen before or since has managed to match or even come close to capturing the sense of badass mystery and no fucks given attitude that Russell effortlessly gifted the audience with here in 1981. And while that particular performance may be enough for what is essentially a low budget genre film, Carpenter managed to gather together one of the greatest casts assembled for any film ever. Whether it’s Lee Van Cleef as the no nonsense Hauk, Harry Dean Stanton as Brain and Adrienne Barbeau as his knife-wielding, gun-toting squeeze Maggie, the great Ernest Borgnine’s Cabbie happily driving around a bombed-out Manhattan offering a lift to anyone who needs it in his sputtering yellow taxi or Donald Pleasance as the increasingly shell shocked President (“President of what!?”) held captive by the mighty Duke of New York, the never better Isaac Hayes, there isn’t a minute that goes by without a mesmerising performance or character.

The look of the film is still unique, an impressive feat not only for the amount of Italian rip offs it inspired but for its limited budget. The model work and matte paintings have never not looked like models or matte paintings but they have such a distinct look, bought to the screen in part by an early in his career James Cameron, that seems unique to this film and no other. Where we now live in an age where CGI is employed for every other shot in a major film the special effects on display here remind us of a bygone age where painstaking work achieved under a deadline and a certain amount of dollars managed to paint a world that still visually astounds.

With the aid of Alan Howarth, for the first of their collaborations, Carpenter also managed to deliver what could be his greatest score. The pulsing synth, with its liberal use of drums, has proved to be just as influential. A number of genre films over the past few years have aped this distinct sound but none have managed to come close to capturing the evocative atmosphere it conjures. When paired with the skeletal animation of the opening credit sequence, and Jamie Lee Curtis’s uncredited voiceover, you are witness to what amounts as a masterclass in scene setting, exposition and world building. By the end of the sequence the appearance onscreen of the word NOW has never looked so threatening, exciting and enticing.

The film’s attitude, look and sound come across beautifully in this new 4K remaster and the blu-ray release manages to easily match the rest of Studio Canal’s recent re-releases from Carpenter’s filmography. The generous amount of extras contain the interesting deleted scene of Plissken’s capture that was supposed to open the film but was soon removed as it robbed the character of his power and presence. The documentaries and interviews with the crew also offer a number of interesting anecdotes but this release is an essential purchase for its remaster alone. If this is your first time visiting this particular iteration of New York I envy you. You are just about to watch the coolest film ever made.

 ‘Escape From New York’ 4K Restoration (STUDIOCANAL) receives its theatrical release on 22 November 2018 and Blu-Ray Release 26 November 2018 including 4-disc Collector’s Edition.

 Iain MacLeod was raised on the North coast of Scotland on a steady diet of 2000AD and Moviedrome, and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.. Now living in Glasgow as a struggling screenwriter he still buys too many comics and blu-rays. Has never seen a ghost but heard two talking in his bedroom when he was four.

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