Whenever the topic of John Carpenter comes up among film aficionados, the pecking order within his filmography always includes Halloween and The Thing at the very top. After that the purists of Carpenter’s early work either gravitate toward The Fog or Assault on Precinct 13 whilst fans of the filmmakers more comedic efforts tend to prop up They Live and Big Trouble in Little China. For me personally however, Escape from New York unquestionably remains the man’s third greatest film and the flick has a litany of low budget (1990: The Bronx Warriors) and big budget (Lockout) rip-offs to back that up.
In a future of unchecked urban decay and fascistic governmental overreach (1997 apparently…), Manhattan island has been cordoned off from the rest of New York and utilized as a maximum-security prison wherein the counties worst criminals are left to their own devices. When Air Force One goes down in the heart of the Big Apple, it’s up to outlaw mercenary and Special Forces veteran Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to go in and save the President as well as the audio cassette tape in the his possession intended to stave off nuclear holocaust.
Alongside Mad Max 2 and the original Terminator, Escape from New York was pivotal in shifting the sci-fi/action subgenre into what we know it as today. Published by Titan Books and written by John Walsh (Harryhausen: The Lost Movies), Escape from New York: The Official Story of the Film details the engrossing pre-to-post production for one of the greatest cult films of ‘80s motion picture history.
The film was a veritable who’s who of innovative character actors from the ‘60s and ‘70s. From Ernest Borgnine (Poseidon Adventure, The Dirty Dozen) to Donald Pleasance (Halloween, You Only Live Twice) to Harry Dean Stanton (Alien), to spaghetti western great Lee Van Cleef (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) the film featured no shortage of prestige eccentricity however it’s the film’s charismatic lead that truly added the fuel to this cinematic fire.
Cutting his teeth as a child actor in live-action Disney productions such as The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit, Kurt Russell was no one’s first choice to portray one-eyed anti-hero Snake. Rather, producers initially considered Charles Bronson, who’s film career was undergoing a bit of an action renaissance with the Death Wish franchise. Fearing that Bronson’s influence would allow him to seize control of the entire production, Carpenter successfully managed pivot the casting of Snake toward Russell whom the director had previously worked with in the made-for-television film Elvis. Carpenter and Russell would go on to work together in three subsequent feature films including the direct sequel, Escape from L.A..
Of course a hero (even an anti-hero) is nothing without an equally strong, equally challenging antagonist. Being chauffeured through the ruins of Manhattan in his chandelier affixed Cadillac is the villainous Duke of New York, played by the late great Isaac Hayes. Predominantly known as a massive figure within the ‘70s soul music scene (having composed the theme to Shaft) Hayes’ acting credits at the time included such films as Truck Turner as well as a recurring role on TV’s The Rockford Files (although younger audiences perhaps better remember Hayes as the voice of Chef on South Park). Producer, screenwriter and longtime Carpenter collaborator, Debra Hill stated of Hayes “he came in, he was just wonderful. We wanted a bigger-than-life archetypal character to be cast in an ensemble support team for Snake Plissken.”
James Cameron, who would become a prominent director in his own right with blockbuster hits like Terminator 2 and Titanic, was brought in as a special visual effects photographer on Escape. Robert and Dennis Skotak, who’d continue to work with Cameron on such effects heavy films as The Abyss and Aliens recall thinking “this guy is really good. We really could use him here because he had real natural talent. Jim [Cameron] is very much like John Carpenter in a lot of ways. Very precise and very much a believer in planning. He’s an artist.” Even in those fledgling early years, the Skotak brothers saw Cameron as “the kind of person that strives for perfection.”
Escape from New York: The Official Story of the Film is replete with tales such as these, alongside stories of Donald Pleasence’s portrayal of President Harker (described as the hybrid “love child” of both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher), collaborations with famed cinematographer Dean Cundey (Halloween III, Jurassic Park), behind-the-scenes photos and more. While the book lacks the all encompassing attention to detail found in the making-of books written by the late J.W. Rinzler, this breezy coffee table topper arguably doesn’t require such attentions.
For those of us that’ve spent this past holiday season buying up gifts for the fam, this unique glimpse into the inner workings of a Carpenter classic can make for an excellent self-gift whilst ringing in the new year (ringing a new year that’s hopefully less bleak than the future depicted in Escape from New York). Escape from New York: The Official Story of the Film is a behind-the-scenes book worthy of Brain’s vast library.
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