Escape from New York remains John Carpenter’s most accomplished and thoroughly watchable movie.

An evocative, pulsating synthesiser soundtrack accompanies the opening credits. A voiceover (provided by an uncredited Jamie Lee Curtis) states “In 1988, the crime rate in the United States rises four hundred percent. The once great city of New York becomes the one maximum security prison for the entire country. A fifty-foot containment wall is erected along the New Jersey shoreline, across the Harlem River, and down along the Brooklyn shoreline. It completely surrounds Manhattan Island. All bridges and waterways are mined. The United States Police Force, like an army, is encamped around the island. 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.” A title card, 1997-NOW appears on screen. So begins John Carpenter’s post-apocalyptic cult sci-fi movie, Escape from New York, released in 1981.

John Carpenter has been aptly described as a director of a generation, one of a group of auteur filmmakers who became associated with a series of horror/sci-f action movies for an audience who grew up at the dawn of the video age during the late 1970s/early ’80s.

It was this young audience that gave Carpenter the cult status that he still retains to this day.

Carpenter had studied film at USC, where his main cinematic influences were the motion pictures of Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. Winning praise for a few short films he made at university, he first came to prominence with his independently-financed, urban war thriller Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). The film, which was made on a mere $100,000 budget, is a modern re-interpretation of Howard Hawks’s classic western Rio Bravo (1959). Furthermore, the film’s editor, named as John T. Chance (a pseudonym for Carpenter), is also the name of John Wayne’s character in Hawks’s movie.

A young Jim Cameron working on a matte-painting for the movie

The director’s next venture was Halloween (1978), which all but invented the “slasher serial killer” genre and today still remains a masterclass in suspense. The presence of Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of actress Janet Leigh, as the female lead in the film was more than a nod to Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Made on a budget of $300,000 and shot in just 20 days, Halloween returned a phenomenal $70 million at the box-office, making it one of the most profitable independently made motion pictures. Carpenter had now gained a reputation for making low budget widescreen features and turning them into money-spinning blockbusters, which resulted in AVCO Embassy Pictures offering him a two-picture deal. The first of these was the supernatural horror film The Fog (1980). Made on a tight budget of one million dollars, it returned a healthy $27 million in rentals.  For his next production, Carpenter proposed a science fiction story he had written, based partly on the Watergate scandal and the film Death Wish (1971).

Escape from New York was an amalgamation of the American public’s mistrust of their President and the then crime-infested jungle of New York City. AVCO liked the idea and immediately green-lit the project with a $7 million budget.

Set sixteen years in the future, the movie begins with Air Force One carrying the US President (cynically portrayed by Donald Pleasance) to a summit meeting in Boston that could head off WWIII. The plane is hijacked by a domestic terrorist and deliberately crashed near the World Trade Center on the island of Manhattan, which is now a maximum security prison inhabited by the dregs of humanity. The island is a human zoo without bars, but there is no way out.


    The Secret Service agent who attempts to break down the door to the cockpit on Air Force One after it has been taken over by a domestic terrorist is in fact Steven Ford, the son of President Gerald Ford.

The inmates, led by the Duke of New York (menacingly played by the soul singer Isaac Hayes), retrieve the President from his safety pod and hold him for ransom. The Duke demands amnesty for all Manhattan’s prisoners or the President dies. However, the US Police Force, led by Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) attempt a rescue that only results in Hauk being presented with the President’s amputated ring finger.

Isaac Hayes as The Duke of New York in a scene with actors Harry Dean Stanton and Adrienne Barbeau

Enter the embittered Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a former Special Forces operative who is on his way in to the prison to serve a life sentence for attempting to rob the Federal Reserve Bank. Hauk promises Plissken his freedom if he can get the president out within 24 hours so that he can deliver a speech that might save the world from a devastating war. Just to ensure Plissken carries out his mission, the authorities implant microscopic explosives in his neck that will be neutralised only if he succeeds.

Once inside the ominous underworld prison, Plissken is constantly recognised by numerous crazy oddballs and vicious criminals. His war record and sociopathic reputation has preceded him and, for a few of the inmates, he is almost a mythic figure. But can he trust any of them to help him with his rescue mission?

AVCO wanted Charles Bronson for the Plissken role but Carpenter told them the actor was too old for the part and persuaded them to cast Kurt Russell. Following Russell’s outstanding performance as Elvis Presley (in a TV movie directed by Carpenter in 1979) they had become good friends. The pair would eventually form an ideal actor-director relationship and go on to make five films together.

Russell’s characterisation of Plissken was based on how he thought Clint Eastwood would have played him.

Plissken’s deadpan sarcasm and whispered, tight-lipped vocal delivery harks back to a character of Eastwood’s – Dirty Harry Callahan. Plissken’s black eyepatch was also suggested by Russell as an homage to Wayne’s character in True Grit (1969). The actor’s excellent performance elevated the Snake Plissken character into the pantheon of great movie anti-heroes.

Unable to film in the city of New York – apart from a single scene on Liberty Island below the Statue of Liberty – Carpenter was fortunate in finding an ideal location in East St Louis, Illinois. The entire neighbourhood of old seedy rundown buildings had been devastated in 1976 by a massive urban fire. Carpenter’s film crew trucked in old car wrecks and tons of metal junk, picked up from local scrap yards, and scattered it amongst the burnt-out ruins and empty streets. Filming most of the scenes during the dead of night resulted in an impressive looking dystopian Manhattan, ably enhanced by a series of matte-paintings produced by a young Jim Cameron – future director of The Terminator and Titanic.

When Escape from New York was released it proved an immediate success, taking over $25 million at the box-office. Viewed today, the scenes of the hijacked plane deliberately crashed close to the Twin Towers appear as an eerie prediction of the tragic 9/11 attack on New York City, two decades after the film’s release. Nevertheless, Escape from New York remains John Carpenter’s most accomplished and thoroughly watchable movie.

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