Snake Plissken busts out of the Big Apple in a new special edition Blu-ray of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK from Scream Factory.
The year is 1997, Manhattan Island was transformed the decade before into a maximum security prison with mined bridges and waterways and guards around the walled perimeter. When Air Force One is hijacked by rebels and crashed into the middle of the city, the President (Donald Pleasance, PRINCE OF DARKNESS) ejects in an escape pod with a crucial audio cassette to be played at an international summit to resolve the ongoing war. A rescue effort is thwarted when junkie Romero (Frank Doubleday, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13) who tells warden Hauk (Lee Van Cleef, DAY OF ANGER) and his guards that they have the President and will kill him if they do not leave the island. Since the President's presence at the summit in twenty-four hours is crucial, Washington does not have time to wait for a list of demands. Hauk decides to offer former special forces officer Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA) – just captured and sentenced to life for a thwarted robbery of the Federal Reserve – a full pardon if he can recover the President within the time frame. To insure that Snake does not just take off in the provided transport, Hauk has him injected with explosive charges that will be neutralized only if he brings the President back alive.
Landing on top of the World Trade Center, Snake dodges thieves, murderers, and cannibalistic sewer dwelling night raiders known as "The Crazies" while on the trail of the President's vital signs tracer, but the trail is a dead end. He learns from "Cabbie" (Ernest Borgnine, THE DEVIL'S RAIN) that the President is being held captive by The Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes, TRUCK TURNER) who travels around in a Cadillac with chandelier headlights. Cabbie takes Snake to The Duke's advisor "Brain" (Harry Dean Stanton, ALIEN) who he recognizes a former partner who double crossed him on another bank job. Brain reveals that he and The Duke are planning to lead the island's prisoners across the mined 69th Street Bridge to freedom using the President as a human shield. Brain and his tough girlfriend Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau, THE FOG) are unwilling to help Snake until he tells them that the President will cease to be a valuable asset to the outside world if he is not returned in time for the summit. After Snake's attempt to rescue the President goes awry, Brain and Maggie no longer have a choice but to help him after betraying The Duke.
The second of John Carpenter's two-picture deal with Avco Embassy (following THE FOG and in place of THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT which would eventually be helmed by THE ICE PIRATES' Stewart Raffill for New World Pictures), ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK moves away from the more intimate earlier films to the bigger scale films he would later be known for (although ESCAPE preceded his studio films for Universal, Columbia, and Fox in the mid-eighties before his return to lower budgets) and the end result is a movie even more grindhouse than ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (as well as being one of the rip-off sources for the mid-eighties Italian post-apocalyptic movies). Russell, trying to move away from his identity as a Disney child star in a role that the studio wanted for Charles Bronson or Tommy Lee Jones, would begin honing his badass image here and in Carpenter's THE THING and tempering it with comic side in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. Hayes' Duke is never really a formidable villain so much as an obstacle to be gotten around on Snake's mission while the real insidiousness is on the part of the government (Carpenter's original script was written in the pre-Reagan late seventies) so it is fitting that Snake's triumphant moment is in anticipation of a future mushroom cloud rather than the hail of gunfire Pleasance's president unleashes during the climax. Barbeau, Borgnine, and Stanton contribute to the film's comic side but also get their grace moments and go out memorably. The low light Panavision cinematography of Carpenter regular Dean Cundey is more prone to flare here than their other collaborations, which is sometimes stylish and sometimes distracting, and the frame is more focused on the scope of action rather than on clever compositions like HALLOWEEN or THE FOG. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK also marked the first soundtrack collaboration with Alan Howarth which lasted through THEY LIVE (as well as taking on HALLOWEEN 4 through CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS solo), and also the first John Carpenter soundtrack release (HALLOWEEN did not come out on vinyl until 1983, THE FOG in 1984 with DARK STAR and ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 debuting years later on CD).
Although the film was only Carpenter's fourth solo theatrical directorial effort (six with the two television movies SOMEONE'S WATCHING ME and ELVIS starring Russell), the cast and crew are already shot through with Carpenter alumni including Nancy Stephens (the nurse in HALLOWEEN) as the stewardess who hijacks Air Force One, John Strobel (the grocery clerk in THE FOG) as the doctor who injects Snake with the explosive charges, THE FOG's Tom Atkins as security chief Remmie and George "Buck" Flower as a wino, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13's Charles Cyphers as the Secretary of State, Jamie Lee Curtis narrated the opening sequence as well as some prison facility loudspeaker commands, producer Debra Hill providing some additional computer voices, and "The Shape" Nick Castle reworked Carpenter's original script and appears in a cameo during the theater scene. It would be the last Carpenter directorial effort on which Hill worked as producer (although she and Carpenter would produce HALLOWEEN II and III) and the first Carpenter producer credit for Larry J. Franco who had served as first assistant director on THE FOG and was Russell's brother-in-law at the time. Russell's then-wife Season Hubley (HARDCORE) has a cameo as "Girl in Chock Full O'Nuts", HALLOWEEN II's Dick Warlock was Russell's stunt man, and future character actor John Diehl (STARGATE) is also credited as a punk.
Originally released on a panned-and-scanned transfer by Embassy Home Entertainment, the film first got the special edition and widescreen treatment via New Line Cinema and Image Entertainment (who had previously released a panned-and-scanned laserdisc in the eighties) with their 1994 laserdisc featuring a Carpenter/Russell commentary, trailer, and a featurette that included clips from but not the entire opening sequence. MGM released a barebones double-sided DVD in 2000 with fullscreen and anamorphic widescreen versions, and then a two-disc set in 2003 from a high definition transfer that carried over the commentary and added another one with Hill and production designer Joe Alves (JAWS), a 5.1 upmix, new featurettes, and the entire original opening reel of the robbery scene with optional commentary by Carpenter and Russell. The film was first released overseas on Blu-ray by Optimum and other Studio Canal-linked European labels in 2008 in what was regarded as an upscale or at least a very poor transfer. MGM's 2010 domestic Blu-ray/DVD combo sported an improved transfer but jettisoned all of the extras from the two-disc DVD set (the DVD side of the combo was the barebones but featured the 5.1 upmix).
Scream Factory's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen transfer was mastered from a 2K scan of the film's interpositive. Owing to the Panavision's first Ultra Speed prime lenses and the low lighting used on the film, flare has always been an issue with several scenes in the film, and it is even more apparent here with orange arcs and blue lines popping up as the camera moves past or across light sources (ironically, these are the types of unintentional effects that some modern filmmakers are trying to recreate digitally). The minutest changes in focus from foreground to background and vice versa are more apparent than ever, but the old school visual effects hold up very well (a tribute to the work of Robert and Dennis Skotak and James Cameron who were then working at Roger Corman's New World Pictures). The colors seem to have been boosted so the gel lighting really pops in some shots but the green glow around the lettering on the computer screen identifying the jet early on as "Airforce One" is harder to read than it was on the DVD (or on the Blu-ray menu clip). Audio options include the original Dolby Stereo track in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio as well as a 5.1 upmix and optional English SDH subtitles are also included.
Carried over from the older special edition are the two commentary tracks. On the first track, Carpenter discusses the challenges of making a big-looking film for five million dollars, attributing the heavy use of the Panaglide here more to covering scenes quickly rather than a stylistic device like the POV shot of HALLOWEEN, and that computer animation was employed to explain plot points that they could not afford to film. Carpenter also points out that the secret service agent banging on the cockpit door on Air Force One was President Gerald Ford's son, that Van Cleef limped because he usually wore a knee brace after an injury falling from a horse, as well as the backstory Pleasance came up with for how an Englishman became president (involving Margaret Thatcher taking over the world and making America a colony again). Russell's remarks are more anecdotal and humorous (including his impression of Pleasance's "You're The Duke!" raving scene). Dating back from the laserdisc, Carpenter mentions the "interview section" in regard to clips from the deleted opening sequence (while the MGM two-disc and this Blu-ray have the entire deleted opening as an extra, the laserdisc and New Line's videocassette release featured an interview featurette with only brief excerpts from the sequence).
On the second commentary track, Hill starts off discussing the computer graphics during the opening which were added because test audiences did not realize that Manhattan was an island that could be closed off. Alves talks about the various locations which were joined together to substitute for New York (including how Cundey's camera would pan or track to dark areas of the screen in which a cut could be hidden to move make locations thousands of miles apart seem to be in the same place), as well as the film's sole actual scene shot in New York at Liberty Island. With New York out of the question for location shooting, they sent associate producer Barry Bernardi (who played the body by the railroad tracks in HALLOWEEN from which Michael Myers got his jumpsuit) on a tour of the United States for the worst-looking city. Hill notes the help of the city of St. Louis and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as how the computer graphics in the control room scenes were pre-designed to actually be shown on-set rather than matted in later (which may also explain the heavy flare around the lettering in those scenes). Besides the sets and locations, Alves also consulted on the costumes and props (noting the problems with automobiles in futuristic movies looking outdated only a few years after) and how he, Hill, and Carpenter consulted with various visual effects artists including John Dykstra (LIFEFORCE) on how to achieve the effects and how much they would cost before going to New World.
New to the set is a third commentary by actress Barbeau and soft-spoken cinematographer Cundey (although the entire track sounds like it is recorded at a lower volume than the other two), moderated by "Horror's Hallowed Grounds" host Sean Clark. Cundey dominates most of the discussion early on – with Barbeau asking him as many questions as Clark – and it is an informative track if you have not listened to the other tracks, the Cundey interview, and other featurettes which also cover the locations, the effects, and the lighting design (faster lenses and the blue look being coming from the color cast of the HMI lights). Barbeau recalls arriving on location in St. Louis and being warned by the hotel management that it was not a safe place, fashioning her own wardrobe accessories to stay true to the environment (like a hairclip made out of turkey breastbone), as well as more behind the scenes Carpenter trivia that we may have heard in the other extras here or in her and others' contributions on other Carpenter discs. Clark also notes the "changing of the guard" in Carpenter's films towards the late eighties in which Cundey was replaced by Gary Kibbe (although Cundey of course moved on to a string of studio flicks including BACK TO THE FUTURE and JURASSIC PARK).
With the exception of the commentary tracks, all extras new and old are contained on a second Blu-ray disc. Carried over from the two-disc is the deleted opening sequence (10:46) in which Snake and his ill-fated partner (Joe Unger, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) attempt to rob the Federal Reserve. It is actually the full opening reel including the credits which open with "Avco Embassy Presents" rather than the card in the final version that also includes International Film Investors and Goldcrest Films International (THE HOWLING also has a variation in presentation cards between different releases). The opening can also be viewed with optional audio commentary by John Carpenter and Kurt Russell in which the director discusses the reasons it was cut: it gave Snake too much humanity and test viewers were confused about the world he was trying to create until the detention center scene. The sequences does create a gap between the opening narration (which is missing the computer graphics and details about the prison) and the wobbly Panaglide camerawork of the sequence also sets the wrong atmosphere (as opposed to the opening in the film made up of computer graphics, precision dolly and crane shots that does not go to the more mobile camera work until Snake hits the ground in New York). Russell remembers little about shooting the sequence (filmed in Atlanta's then un-opened new subways system) other than the dolly breaking and the sound cart used in its place to move the camera. The sequence is cropped to 1.85:1 and rather soft-looking. New to the Blu-ray release is "I Am Taylor" (8:49) in which actor Unger recalls shooting the sequence and concedes to the reasons it was cut.
"Return to Escape from New York" featurette (22:59) also comes from the MGM two-disc and includes comments from Carpenter, Russell, Barbeau, Hayes, Stanton, Cundey, Alves, Hill, and co-writer Nick Castle (HOOK) who added humor to Carpenter's original concept. Carpenter, Russell, and Hill discuss the "unpatriotic patriotic" qualities of Snake Plissken as well as how he ends up being the only honorable character in the film while Hayes was excited to be the "master villain." Cundey and Alves recall how accommodating St. Louis was when the production used their waterfront (burned out after a massive fire in 1977) as well as Carpenter buying the bridge they used for a dollar and selling it back for the same amount (so that the city would not have any liability during the shoot). The release also includes the theatrical trailer (2:16) from the DVD – although in 16:9 and considerably less grainy than the non-anamorphic one – and a second minute-long trailer.
"Big Challenges in Little Manhattan: The Visual Effects of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK" (14:27) in which brothers Robert and Dennis Skotak (ALIENS) talk about how Corman wanted to branch out to do effects for other films after buying equipment to do the effects for BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS. Carpenter saw the film and approached New World about doing the effects for ESCAPE. The Skotaks discuss how the work on Carpenter's film was more challenging because they had to fabricate models of the city of New York and utilized 70mm cameras and film so that there would be less apparent image degradation as the effects went through multiple passes. They also discuss the contributions of James Cameron who was just as obsessive about perfection as Carpenter. The featurette is fully illustrated with behind the scenes stills and clips from the film.
In "Scoring the Escape" (18:55), co-composer Alan Howarth describes how he came onto ESCAPE as a sound designer through film editor Todd Ramsay who he had worked with just before on STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. When Carpenter's partner on THE FOG was unable to work on ESCAPE, Ramsay suggested Carpenter listen to some of Howarth's compositions and sounds. Carpenter hired him right away and Howarth describes how the director would take the first composition pass on scenes and then Howarth would be left to build upon and rework the compositions. He mentions that there was a lot of improvisation in the scoring and that Howarth had to then transcribe the score to paper since a written score was a requirement among Avco Embassy's deliverables. He then discusses the Varese Sarabande soundtrack album which was an afterthought that sold eighty-thousand copies followed by their CD, then an extended and digitally-remastered (fully remixed from the separately digitized twenty four tracks) CD from Silva Screen and the sold out Death Waltz Records orange vinyl, as well as his live concerts of Carpenter themes.
"On Set with John Carpenter: The Images of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK" (10:50) is an interview with the film's still photographer Kim Gottlieb-Walker which takes its title from her recent book of behind the scenes photographs from Carpenter's films. She was hired for HALLOWEEN through Hill – who was script supervisor on a low budget horror film on which she worked with Cundey and camera operator Ray Stella – and how Hill worked out ways to get crew members into the unions. She recalls how the light levels Cundey was working with were so low that she could not get light readings and often had to wait until proof sheets got back to know if a shot was not blurred. She also recalls working the required thirtieth day to be eligible to join the union with a broken wrist after an accident during the wrap party the weekend before.
In "My Night on Set" (5:02), filmmaker David DeCoteau (SORORITY GIRLS IN THE SLIMEBALL BOWL-O-RAMA) discusses how he first worked for Corman's New World Pictures upon arriving in Los Angeles and was working on GALAXY OF TERROR when he was hired as production assistant for one night of pick up shots for ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK on the neighboring set. He did not meet Barbeau at the time since Russell was the only actor on set for the pick-ups, but he did get to work with her years later on RING OF DARKNESS. The extras are rounded off with two photo galleries of production stills, behind the scenes photos, posters, and lobby cards. The cover features the original poster art on the reverse and a slipcover with new artwork. (Eric Cotenas)
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