#WayBackWednesday – Escape from New York (1981)

We’re all stuck in the house, right? There’s never been a better time to dig into those retro movies that you’ve always wanted to watch, but never had the time for. Personally, I’m a bit of a retrophile and tend to watch more older flicks than newer ones. On Fangirlish, you can now look forward to a retro review from me each Wednesday in this column. I’ll be highlighting one throwback movie a week, offering a spoiler-free review of the film, any throwback thoughts from my childhood, and where you can watch the movie yourself. Sit back, relax, and enjoy #WayBackWednesday.

1997. The once great city of New York now functions as a penal colony. Once you’re in, you can’t get out. All borders and waterways are under United States Police (yes, you read that right) guard. There are no guards within the prison, only the rules laid down by the prisoners and their factions create order. The president (Donald Pleasance) has been kidnapped, and it’s up to convicted bank robber, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to rescue the president…or die. Such is the premise of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York. Check out the original theatrical trailer.

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While Escape from New York is not a film I caught growing up, it embodies the look and feel that I relish in a 1980s science fiction action film. Directed by John Carpenter, this dystopian sci-fi flick is one of my favorites of his work. Carpenter is my favorite horror director, but he also is just a plain good director. So much of his film-making is a masterclass in cinematography, which to me, makes all of his films infinitely rewatchable. Halloween (1978), The Fog, The Thing, Escape from New York, amongst others are fascinating in their use of light, shadow, and shot composition. Carpenter relies heavily on the visuals to tell the story; this isn’t a film to watch with your phone in your hand. Carpenter also enjoys over-the-shoulder camera shots, which puts you in the footsteps of Snake Plissken. This is a signature shot that he utilizes in Halloween (1978), pulling it out again 3 years later in Escape from New York

Carpenter also likes to utilize the same actors across his films, which adds a unique intertextual layer. In this film, we have Kurt Russell, Donald Pleasance, Tom Atkins, Adrienne Barbeau, and Charles Cyphers, all who star in other John Carpenter films, such as Halloween (1978), The Fog, The Thing, Assault on Precinct 13, and Big Trouble in Little China, just to name a few. In this particular film, I think the starkest character shift for me is Donald Pleasance as the president compared with his iconic character of Dr. Loomis in Halloween (1978). Doc Loomis is a real white hat. As for the president in Escape from New York…well…I’ll let you decide what to think when you watch the film. For animation fans, you’ll want to listen closely for familiar voices–Mermaid Man from SpongeBob SquarePants and The Chef from South Park have prominent roles in this film. 

Another hallmark of any John Carpenter film is the score. Carpenter’s scores are not just musical underlays for the film, nor do they detract or distract from the action. The score adds gravitas and enhances each scene, offering depth and musical insight to the film. Escape from New York is no exception. From the steady main theme, to the building, pulsing beat of “The Duke Arrives/Barricade,” John Carpenter truly understands how to utilize his compositions to augment a film. For this film, John Carpenter partnered with sound editor, Alan Howarth to create the score. Howarth created a library of sounds using various synths, guitars, a piano, and a drum machine while Carpenter used a synthesizer to compose these sounds into music.

If you’re looking for a dystopian throwback film full of action movie tropes, intense fight sequences, and a signature synth score from John Carpenter, look no further than Escape from New York.  

Escape from New York is currently included with Amazon Prime. 

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