I watched John Carpenter’s 1981 ‘Escape From New York’ last week for the first time in many years, possibly since the early 80’s. When I saw it as a kid, I thought it was the coolest: a whole city abandoned and converted into a prison, oddball criminals carving out a post-apocalyptic world in the ruins. The landmarks I knew only through movies and TV shows: the World Trade Center, Grand Central Station, Radio City Music Hall, Central Park, transformed into a wrestling arena, a gangster headquarters, a den of rape, violence, horror. New York was synonymous with crime then, with whole neighborhoods abandoned and put to the torch, so it wasn’t such a stretch to believe that it would be rendered uninhabitable by all but the worst criminals. But even then, it wasn’t really a frightening film: the characters weren’t quite real, and the dystopian Manhattan felt more like a video game.
The plot: Snake Plisken (Kurt Russell) is a former war hero turned fugitive about to be shipped to Manhattan after attempting to rob the Federal Reserve. The year is 1997, 10 years after Manattan was declared a maximum security prison (following a 400% spike in crime across the US). In Manhattan: “There are no guards inside the prison, only prisoners, and the worlds they have made. The rules are simple: once you go in, you don’t come out.” The President’s plane has been hijacked by lefty terrorists (remember them?), and the President has escaped in a pod. Snake is recruited to get him out.
The film starts off strong, with shots of a darkened Manhattan across the water, then Snake Plisken (Kurt Russell) soaring in on the power glider, swooping silently over the abandoned streets, up to the top of the silent Twin Towers. That moment of tension is intense: looking down on those familiar streets, wondering what lives there. There’s even a hint of menace when a solitary figure runs across the background, as Snake descends by foot through the Tower after catching a service elevator to the 50th floor. On ground level, he wanders, gun aloft, past boarded up warehouse buildings in what should be Tribeca, to the site of the crashed plane, still smoldering in the middle of what could be Delancey.
From there, the film descends rapidly into farce. In a theatre, Snake witnesses a musical, performed by prisoners in raggedy drag, and meets ‘Cabby’ (played by Ernest Borgnine). It is unclear whether Cabby is a criminal, or somehow left over from New York’s other life. Soon, Snake is caught in an attack by the ‘crazies’, cannibals who live in the subways and come above ground once a month to ‘feed’. In the back of a ‘Chock Full O’ Nuts’, he meets a woman prisoner with surprisingly well-coifed 80’s hair (all the ‘prisoners’ seem to have great hair – even in the Apocalypse, New York remains fashion conscious), but the first very faint hints of romance disappear abruptly when the girl is kidnapped and presumably eaten by the crazies. Snake runs for his life, saved by Cabby in a 70’s style yellow cab, complete with heavy grilles over the windows, who tells him, with remarkable understatement: “This is a rough neighborhood, Snake, you don’t want to be caught down here. I just came down ’cause I wanted to catch the show!”
From there, Snake has to rescue the President from the “A-Number-One, Duke of New York” (played with impressive gravitas by Isaac Hayes). He meets his old friend and nemesis, Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), whose girlfriend also has a perfect 80’s perm, in the basement of the New York Public Library, sets out to rescue the President from one of the abandoned railway cars in Grand Central Station, battle a monster cage fight in what looks like the Great Hall of the Met, before dashing over the 69th street bridge with Brain, Cabby and the President, the Duke giving chase.
The main character of course is the city, yet Manhattan remains curiously out of focus. After I’d watched the film again, I read that it was actually filmed in East St. Louis, which had recently been leveled by a fire, and this explains why a lot of the backdrops are never quite recognizable. The film could have been menacing, but no characters are developed enough, and of course everyone has that great hair, as if the inmates managed to maintain hair salons, even amidst the worst depravity. Even the graffiti is curiously family friendly (“BRICKS”, “Don’t fool with Nico Hext!”) As a period piece, it’s pretty rich: the inmates affect many fashions: Early 80’s New Wave clubber, biker, psycho, drugged-out hippy, black and Puerto Rican street dude. Some of the hippies even wear outsized, purple plastic sunglass rims. Casting this thing must have been a blast.
‘Escape’ has much in common with ‘The Warriors’, including the time period, the vision of a post-Apocalyptic New York, and some memorable scenes. But the Warriors is far more compelling – even realistic. Kurt Russell’s ‘Snake’ is so flat, uninteresting – we are never told why a war hero became a fugitive worthy of being shipped to the worst prison in the nation, and Snake goes through no change of character, no moment of vulnerability even. As soon as I’d watched the film, I’d pretty much forgotten it.
Maybe not that vision of a great city abandoned. Somehow, even if it was out of focus, that still rings true. I wonder how many people who’d lived in New York in the golden mid-century era, felt something similar when they came back after the great hollowing out of the 70’s and 80’s. Having been to Detroit, and coming from a town that has more or less been abandoned, I can recognize that it happens.
But who would have guessed that Manhattan would indeed become a gated community – but for the rich? It’s almost like ‘Escape’ in reverse.