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ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Sept. 22, 2017

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Shout! Factory’s ‘Collector’s Edition’ Blu-ray of ‘Escape From New York’ is loaded with extras for fans of the cult favorite (with a nice supporting role for Harry Dean Stanton, who passed away last Monday). Here’s my review, published on Aug. 7, 1981, in the Deseret News.

“Escape From New York” is a chilling vision of a bleak future through a glass darkly, with director John Carpenter propelling the audience into a literal hell on earth with a relentlessness that will leave viewers out of breath before the end of the first reel.

Carpenter sees 1997 America as being so crime-ridden that all of New York City has been walled in, the country’s only maximum-security prison. Escape is impossible, with bridges mined and walled, helicopters circling the island of Manhattan constantly, radar scanning the area and armed guards at every turn — even in the Statue of Liberty.

In this prison-city are more than 3 million felons who will never be paroled, preying on each other within myriad sub-cultures.

Then disaster strikes, as Air Force One crashes within New York’s walls and the president of the United States is taken hostage.

Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is about to be dropped into the prison when he is given a chance for freedom: All he has to do is go inside and rescue the president. He only has 24 hours, however, as the president (Donald Pleasance) carries papers and a cassette tape that are vital to world peace.

And that’s just the beginning.

Once Plissken is inside he encounters a crazy cab driver (Ernest Borgnine) and a self-styled intellectual called “Brain” (Harry Dean Stanton), who lives in a burned-out library with his hard-edged moll (Adrienne Barbeau).

     

  Kurt Russell, Adrienne Barbeau, 'Escape From New York'

With their help, Plissken attempts to rescue the president from the prison’s kingpin, The Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes).

Whether this premise is your cup of horror depends on whether you can accept Plisskin as an anti-hero’s hero and go along with the negative view of humanity represented.

I bought it and found myself enjoying “Escape From New York” much more than I expected to, although “enjoying” may not be quite the right word.

Carpenter is a stylist and he has managed to put every penny of his $7 million budget on the screen. Occasionally the special effects falter (when the glider goes over the side of the World Trade Center, they definitely look like scale models), but for the most part “Escape” is incredibly effective.

The sets and lighting reflect the attitude of the picture, the movie is almost entirely night scenes and New York is almost entirely burned out. And the pulsating music (Carpenter co-wrote the score with Alan Howarth) adds to the scary atmosphere.

Carpenter is young and he builds on his style with every film. Just as “Halloween” was the most frightening horror movie of its generation, so “Escape From New York” is destined to be remembered as the most horrifying view of the not-too-distant future.

     

The acting is first-rate, especially Russell’s. After his apprenticeship in Disney domestic comedies, he showed his diverse talents by giving us a glib, fast-talking huckster in “Used Cars” and an excellent impersonation of Presley in Carpenter’s TV-movie “Elvis.” Now he uses a guttural snarl to become a feared criminal and it’s most effective.

Because there are no sympathetic characters here (even the president is less than honorable) it’s a matter of rooting for the survival of the mission, if not the people.

Fortunately, Carpenter and co-writer Nick Castle have laced their script with enough sardonic humor to keep you laughing past the movie’s problems.

Rated R for some strong violence and profanity, “Escape From New York” is a rough thriller that will alternately have you laughing and chewing your fingernails up to your wrists.

For those who like sci-fi-horror melodrama, cynicism and stylish filmmaking, “Escape From New York” is perfect escapist fare.