I’ve just re-watched a classic. A real blast from the past for this Post-Apocalyptic Movie Club selection, and for good reason. I’ll be referencing this film, and the film I’m going to talk about next, in a new ‘What Works For Me’ article, coming up shortly.
There are three directors I regularly cite as having had a huge impact on me during my formative years. In no particular order they are George Romero, David Cronenberg, and John Carpenter. Romero is self-explanatory: without him there’d be no Autumn. Cronenberg – well, he’s responsible for some of my very favourite horror movies… The Fly, Shivers, Rabid – need I go on? I was once told that he’d been passed a copy of Hater. Just the thought that Cronenberg’s held one of my books is something I still find hard to believe.
John Carpenter completes this weird holy trinity. His films are, I think, more accessible than those of Cronenberg and Romero, but not less influential. I’m a particular admirer of his golden period: from Assault on Precinct 13 in 1976, through to The Thing in 1982, and pretty much everything in between. During this time he made a series of consistently strong, often ground-breaking horror films.
Escape from New York (1981) is a cracking movie, one which I’m sure you’ve probably seen. If you haven’t, you’re in for a treat. Here’s the synopsis, followed by a trailer. Click the link below for my thoughts.
In the future (well, 1997 was the future back then!), crime in America has spiralled out of control. Surrounded by impenetrable defences, New York City is now a maximum security prison: once you go in, you don’t come out. When the President of the USA crash lands in Manhattan, Snake Plissken, a disgraced special ops soldier, is sent in. Plissken has twenty-four hours to find the president and get him out.
For me, EFNY works for a number of reasons. Firstly, it has a beautifully simple premise, and equally uncluttered execution. We’re thrown into the story from the opening scenes, and the pace barely lets up. The cast are, on the whole, superb. Kurt Russell is supremely confident as the iconic Plissken, and is ably supported by, amongst others, character actor legends Lee Van Cleef, Donald Pleasence, Harry Dean Stanton and Ernest Borgnine. Only Isaac Hayes as the Duke of New York lets the side down, failing to bring any level of menace to a character who, by default, should be the very worst of the worst. His bizarre sidekick Romero (yes, named after George, and yes, there’s a character called Cronenberg too) is ten times more terrifying.
The film inevitably feels dated and yet, to its credit, doesn’t suffer because of this. Plissken lands a glider on top of the World Trade Centre, for example, and the rudimentary computer displays, bulky watches with red LED countdowns, and the look of the police security control centre on Liberty Island are all very definitely early 1980s in their execution. But, again, you’re hooked on the strong story and rounded characters and, as such, are able to fully buy in to the film. Visually, the look of a crumbling dystopian New York (filmed in fire-ravaged parts of St. Louis) is spot on, with steam-powered cars, dilapidated buildings, and recognisable landmarks appearing in the midst of the chaos.
I love the idea of microcosms – societies existing within societies, if you like – and the prison environment of EFNY is a brilliantly executed example of such a situation. We’re never shown the normality of life in far-off 1997, but that doesn’t matter: the world within the walls of the prison is so well realised we don’t need to know what happens elsewhere, we’re happy to just assume it’s infinitely better outside Manhattan than in. If I have one criticism, it’s that the sprawling chaos of overrun NYC feels too small and confined in the film, though that undoubtedly was due to the limited budget Carpenter was working with and the technical restrictions of the day. There’s been more talk recently of a remake (a planned trilogy, I think), but I’ve little interest in watching it. I’m happy with the original, thanks very much. It knows what it is, it plays to its strengths, and it’s choc-full of attitude and atmosphere.
I’m talking about a very well known movie that’s more than thirty years old here, so I’m guessing most of you have already seen it. If not, why not? EFNY is a great way to spend ninety minutes. I’ll have a far less successful crime-related dystopian movie to talk about next time.