The Legacy of John Carpenter’s Escape From New York

Before The Purge, there was John Carpenter's Escape From New York. 40 years later, the action classic casts a long shadow.

Escape from New York came out 40 years ago this week. Released on July 10, 1981, director and co-writer John Carpenter’s sardonic sci-fi action thriller is set in a future United States where the rise of rampant crime has led to Manhattan Island being walled off and turned into a gigantic supermax prison.

When Air Force One is hijacked and forced to crash land on the island, the federal government turns to ex-Special Forces soldier-turned-criminal Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to get onto the island and rescue the President (Donald Pleasance) in under 24 hours.

At stake: the president’s life and his appearance at a critical peace summit with China and the Soviet Union. If Snake succeeds, he gets a full pardon for his crimes. If he doesn’t, a device attached to his neck explodes and kills him.

Carpenter and his friend Nick Castle (who played The Shape in the original Halloween) reportedly wrote Escape in 1974 as a response to both the Watergate scandal and the resultant distrust in government, plus the onslaught of crime during the 1970s in major cities like New York.

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With crime on the rise again to some degree following the COVID-19 pandemic, Escape remains eerily relevant in some ways, even if American cities are not quite falling back into the chasm of crime from which they struggled to climb out in that turbulent decade.

“The decay of New York in the ’70s was pronounced then,” Carpenter told us earlier this year when speaking briefly about the film. “It was really bad.”

The idea of crime running out of control and leading to desperate measure by an authoritarian government is still seen today in films like The Purge and its sequels. In those, the U.S., now a reactionary theocracy, allows for one night every year in which all crime, including murder, is legally allowed. Carpenter himself cited the Purge series as a descendant in some ways of his picture.

James DeMonaco, who created The Purge, directed the first three films and written all five (including the recently released The Forever Purge), confirms the influence of Escape from New York on his franchise and acknowledges the film as one of his favorites.

“I’d still stand by it,” DeMonaco tells Den of Geek. “It’s in my top 10, because I was so blown away by it. I remember my dad got our first VCR, I was probably 13 or 14, somewhere around there. He brought tapes home and…I think they were bootleg even back then, but Escape from New York, First Blood, and Mad Max were in the first batch.”

DeMonaco continues, “I must have worn those things out, but of all the three, I think Escape from New York, I could probably recite every line. There was something about the way Carpenter shot it. This dystopian future of New York being walled off stayed with me to this day.”

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Carpenter had just directed two horror films in a row — his 1978 breakout Halloween and the 1980 ghost story The Fog — and was at first going to possibly direct a time travel thriller called The Philadelphia Experiment. But when he parted with that project over creative differences, Escape from New York became his fifth feature film.

Initially the studio that backed the film, Avco-Embassy Pictures, was interested in casting either Tommy Lee Jones or Charles Bronson as Snake Plissken. “Charles Bronson had expressed interest in playing Snake,” Carpenter told interviewer Gilles Boulenger in the book John Carpenter: The Prince of Darkness. “But I was afraid of working with him. He was a big star and I was this little shit nobody.”

Carpenter wanted Russell, with whom he had worked on the TV movie Elvis and would cast in three more films after Escape, including The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China and Escape from L.A.  The actor himself was looking for a way to change up his image as the fresh-faced star of Disney family comedies.

“Yeah, he was, and I knew he could do it,” says Carpenter about Russell’s mission. “The studio was just not sure because he hadn’t done anything like this. People are scared if you’re starting something that hasn’t been done before. They want to make sure that it’s been done so they know what they’re getting. They weren’t sure about Kurt. He proved himself so that was great.”

Russell got himself into top physical shape for the role, telling Circus magazine in a 1980 interview, “Snake is a mercenary, and his style of fighting is a combination of Bruce Lee, the Exterminator and Darth Vader, with [Clint] Eastwood’s vocal-ness.” He added that although Plissken starts the film as a convicted robber, “His individuality makes him acceptable to the audience in a heroic way.”

Russell was joined in the cast by legendary Western star Lee Van Cleef, who plays police commissioner Bob Hauk, along with Pleasance as the Chief Executive and stars like Ernest Borgnine, Adrienne Barbeau, Harry Dean Stanton, and Isaac Hayes as denizens of the sealed-off Manhattan interior. But perhaps the toughest casting problem was finding a city to play Manhattan.

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The real New York was out of the question because it would be too difficult to make it look semi-ruined on the film’s relatively paltry $6 million budget. So Carpenter, producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves searched for a city that, to be brutally frank, already looked destroyed.

Location manager Barry Bernardi suggested East St. Louis, a rundown area sitting across the Mississippi River from the more affluent parts of St. Louis. There had been a tremendous fire in the neighborhood in 1976, with Hill telling Cinefantastique, “Block after block was burnt-out rubble.”

“Around the turn of the century New York City and St. Louis were very much the same architecturally,” Alves told Starlog in a May 1981 interview. “John and I eventually came [to St. Louis] to inspect a bridge…we looked around at the old buildings and thought they were fantastic. These were structures that exist in New York now, and have that seedy, run-down quality that we’re looking for.”

The movie was shot at night in East St. Louis, from 9pm to 6am, and Carpenter recalls it was a productive but difficult experience. “It was amazing, unbelievable. We were there in the summertime when it’s blistering hot. They had this big fire there in the ’70s. It burned out the place. But they were very cooperative. They turned off all the streetlights, and let us move stuff, and that was just great.”

The film also shot in New York (at Liberty Island), Atlanta (for an unused subway sequence) and on soundstages in Los Angeles before wrapping in November 1980. Upon its release the following July, it grossed $25.2 million at the box office — one of the bigger hits of Carpenter’s career. It also scored well with critics, and like many of Carpenter’s films, its stature has only grown over the years.

Although the 1996 sequel, Escape from L.A., proved to be far inferior and less successful, Escape from New York has gained classic status and has been a candidate for a remake in recent years. 20th Century Fox hired Robert Rodriguez to direct it in 2017, although that never happened; The Invisible Man writer/director Leigh Whannell was tapped in 2019 to script it, but little has been heard on that either.

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James DeMonaco says the remake came his way at one point — but it sounds like he’d rather break into the Manhattan prison and get back out again before touching that prospect. “I still think this is the greatest idea,” he says of the original. “I was offered the remake. I was like, ‘No, I can’t do it. No way. I’m not touching it. We should not touch. This is the perfect film. No one should go near this movie.’”