Escape from NY

‘Escape From New York’: “B” Movie, Plus

It’s a jailbreak movie where the jail is all of New York’s Manhattan Island. It’s the greatest “B” movie of all time. It’s an ’80s movie that has only become more relevant over the years. And it isn’t a horror movie, but it might be horror master John Carpenter’s most frightening work. 

The movie in question is, of course, Escape From New York. It’s not the first jailbreak movie, but it takes the concept to another level by making the jail really big. Not quite as big as the film’s title suggests, but Escape From Manhattan Island doesn’t have the same ring to it as Escape From New York

Turning Manhattan into a giant supermax prison would, alone, puts Escape From  New York in the running for “B” movie greatness. But Carpenter didn’t stop there.  The movie’s (anti-) hero is named Snake Plissken, and he has an eyepatch. Plissken is not just a dude trying to escape from a 23-square-mile prison because he doesn’t like the food — he’s on a mission for the United States government. That mission is to rescue the president of the U.S., who is trapped in the prison after an Air  Force One hijacking. And before Plissken can rescue the president, he’ll have to deal with the Duke of New York, the de facto ruler of Manhattan and its population of prisoners. And Plissken has to do all of this in 24 hours, otherwise, the tiny time bombs implanted inside him will explode and kill him. 

The icing on this amazing “B” movie cake is a scene where Plissken arms himself before he leaves on his mission, and the camera lingers on a table full of weapons that include an Uzi submachine gun, a pistol with a big scope on it, and three ninja throwing stars. 

But Carpenter didn’t stop there. He cast the movie with incredible character actors.  Donald Pleasence plays the president, Lee Van Cleef and Tom Atkins play the guys who send Plissken on his mission, and Issac Hayes plays the Duke of New York. Adrienne Barbeau, Harry Dean Stanton, and Ernest Borgnine all show up in key roles. And I haven’t even mentioned the legendary Kurt Russell — he plays Snake  Plissken in one of his first grown-up lead roles (Russell was famous in his younger days for his roles in Disney movies like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes).

If all that doesn’t convince you of this movie’s “B” credentials, I’d ask you to listen to the moody, sparse musical score, written by Carpenter himself. The Escape From New York main theme is as iconic in its way as John Williams’ Superman and Raiders of the Lost Ark themes. But unlike the scores of those big-budget movies, performed by big orchestras in the tradition of most classic “A”  movies, the Escape score was performed by a couple of dudes with some synthesizers and a drum machine — and one of those dudes was the movie’s director! The other performer was frequent Carpenter collaborator Alan Howarth,  and the duo’s synthesizer sounds continue to influence musicians and filmmakers to this day. 

So yeah, Escape From New York is a heck of a lot of “B” movie fun. But if you want to dig a little beneath the surface — and you don’t have to, the movie’s obvious joys are plentiful, so just dig if you want to — you will uncover some scary stuff. 

Carpenter has said that the film’s dystopian setting was partially inspired by post-Watergate-scandal cynicism. And the idea of turning Manhattan into a prison was a goof on New York’s 1970s-era reputation as a crime-ridden and dangerous place to live. 

The movie’s dystopian underpinnings are generally more implied than clearly stated, but we can gather that the U.S. is a fascistic police state where citizens’ due process rights have been eliminated. Let’s assume that a cabal inside the U.S.  government wanted to set the country on a path to fascism. Destroying America’s great cultural centre — the birthplace of so much theatre, literature, music, film,  and art — would strike a brutal blow against traditional American liberal democracy. And these fascists don’t just destroy Manhattan, they wall it in (shades of Cold War-era Berlin and America’s 45th president) and throw alleged (no due process, remember) criminals in there to fend for themselves. 

Yes, the Duke of New York is ruthless. But can you really blame him? 

Snake Plissken is a veteran of a years-long war with Russia (and maybe China?).  While the United States currently isn’t in a hot war with Russia or China (though who knows what kind of cyber shenanigans are going on), America has been at war in the Middle East for twenty years now. Plissken is also a decorated war hero, but the government is quick to ignore that when they inject him with tiny time bombs  (assumedly experimental — did they even test these things before they shot them into Plissken’s neck?) and send him in to rescue the president. Nations involved in unending wars generally don’t make their troops’ well-being a top priority. 

And regarding the president, if there’s no due process in Escape From New York America, it’s probably safe to assume the elections aren’t free and fair anymore,  either (shades of Jim Crow-era voting restrictions, modern oligarch-run Russia,  and modern American attempts at voter suppression). 

Lately, I think this might be the scariest of John Carpenter’s movies, even though it is generally classified as one of the horror master’s non-horror films. The odds of you or I being replaced by an alien shapeshifting monster (as in The Thing) or being driven to madness by Lovecraftian creatures (as in In the Mouth of Madness)  or even being stalked by a killer in a mask (Halloween, of course) are pretty slim.  But there has been a rise in right-wing anti-democracy movements lately, all around the world. So the odds of you or I losing our right to vote or to due process are rising. Assuming you don’t live in a place where you have lost those rights already. 

Maybe the date was the only thing John Carpenter really got wrong when he made  Escape From New York. Escape was released into theatres 40 years ago and the events of the movie take place in 1997 (as announced by that awesome title card: “1997: Now”). Maybe Carpenter was only off by 25 or 30 years.

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