It’s regrettable to genre aficionados that the 21st century has seen a marked decline in the cinematic output of cult auteur John Carpenter. Conversely, the reputational stock of the venerable director has perhaps never been higher, as genre fans, critics and a new breed of filmmakers clamour to praise and re-evaluate the creator of Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980) and The Thing (1982). But since 2001’s Ghosts Of Mars, Carpenter has only been behind the camera for two episodes of US anthology TV show Masters Of Horror (2005, 2006) and poorly received psychological chiller The Ward (2010). Meanwhile, he’s dabbled in video games and concentrated on music, releasing three albums and touring them, while consulting on and executive producing this year’s Halloween reboot. Independent to the core and once interested in making fun, thrilling films with his own stamp, it seems Carpenter tired of the system as it tired of him. Now a 4K restoration of Escape From New York (1981) limited theatrical run and new Blu-ray release – a treatment also bestowed on The Fog, Prince Of Darkness (1987) and They Live (1988) – is another attempt to reinforce our love for the big JC. It’s not documented how committed atheist Carpenter feels about sharing his initials with the best-known biblical figure but perhaps the thought causes him to break out the kind of wry half-smile used by one of his laconic heroes. Escape… sees Carpenter regular Kurt Russell play Snake Plissken, a former Special Forces soldier turned federal prisoner. In a dystopian 1997(!), Plissken is offered a pardon if he can rescue the US president in 24 hours after Air Force One is hijacked and subsequently crashed into a Manhattan that has been turned into a giant, open maximum security prison. That is to say “open” throughout the island, but walled around its perimeter and featuring mines at every bridge and tunnel. Snake stomps around the derelict, garbage-strewn island helped by Ernest Borgnine on eccentric form as Cabbie, a lover of show tunes and wielder of Molotov cocktails. Cabbie soon introduces Snake to Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), who recognises him as erstwhile accomplice Harold Hellman, a con who double-crossed him years earlier, and Brain’s tough partner Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau). Together they devise a mission to rescue the president from the crime boss who runs the island, self-proclaimed “Duke of New York City” (Isaac Hayes). Snake navigates the broken city contending with a gallery of grotesques, roadblocks built from stacks of burned-out cars and the duplicitous Brain. The Duke, meanwhile, has his own ideas about getting off the island. As so often with classic Carpenter, Escape’s rudimentary plot is of less importance than what is done with it. Like a master Motown craftsman delivering a ’60s hit single, each little piece is perfectly calibrated. Take Snake’s appearance. Stubble, eye-patch, leather jacket, lengthy blonde coiffure with industrial quantities of hairspray, cigarette. If his look was any stronger it’d be punching viewers through the screen. It helps that the man rocking this sartorial and cosmetic masterclass is Kurt Russell, essentially the less conservative 1980s Clint Eastwood. Your mum fancied him. Probably your dad and now you, too. Further down the cast, Borgnine is as loveably unhinged as anyone he’d played since The Wild Bunch (1969), while Lee Van Cleef is a solid presence as Police Commissioner Bob Hauk, the man who sends Snake on his quest. Harry Dean Stanton just plays Harry Dean Stanton like he does in Repo Man (1984), Straight Time (1978) and Pretty In Pink (1986), a man who’s seen it, done it and would probably rather avoid any more grief if that’s alright. Donald Pleasance is an effete and sweaty president who is mostly terrified and trussed up. Escape… was shot in 1980 and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the gender and racial aspects of the film are a touch dated. Barbeau, the only woman with a decent chunk of screen time, is sadly little more than Brain’s girlfriend, even if she does shoot guns and kill minions alongside the men in the cast. Hayes as the Duke – replete with ace cowbell-adorned Krautrock theme music – is as cool and mean as the part demands but is underused for the main antagonist of the film. Socio-political niggles aside, this Carpenter classic stands up remarkably well (we can forgive the positively pre-historic tech on display given how quickly things change in that sphere). From the pulsing synth score by Carpenter and musical collaborator Alan Howarth to the nightmarish production design shot mostly in East St Louis, Escape From New York is an utterly atmospheric, immersive experience. Like Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1980), it’s an unforgettable film about an after-dark mission across a grotty NYC, where tackling feral street urchins and staying alive are the key concerns. It deserves to be seen in this crisp and crystal clear new restoration but does provoke one nagging question. If the current US president crashed on to a huge prison island with little chance of survival, would anyone care to rescue him?
The Escape From New York collectors edition is available on 4K Ultra HD from November 26th.