Horror maestro John Carpenter had by 1981 had earned a reputation for doing a lot with a little.
His smash hit Halloween had made him a reigning king of horror, and suddenly studios across Hollywood were opening their wallets, allowing Carpenter to realize a project he’d had been planning since the Watergate scandal of the 1970s.
With Carpenter's trademark tension, the tightly-knit worlds of his earlier movies unspooled into a dark sci-fi vision that stands among the most iconic dystopian movies ever made. Here’s why you need to revisit Escape from New York, now streaming on HBO Max.
In the 1988 of Carpenter’s film, due to a 400 percent increase in violent crime, the island of Manhattan has been evacuated and turned into an open-air prison. When Escape from New York first hit theaters, this wasn’t as far-fetched an idea as it now appears to be.
1981 was at that time New York City’s most crime-ridden year on record, with 637,451 reported felonies. And after 1981, the second-worst year for crime in New York was 1980; in other words, the city was heating up, with no signs of stopping.
Escape from New York begs plenty of questions about what a forced evacuation of Manhattan might look like, but Carpenter isn’t interested in a nuts-and-bolts approach to his dystopia. Like Grand Theft Auto III years later, Carpenter set out more to treat New York City as a sandbox within which all manner of marauding villains and heroes could run loose.
Similarly, Carpenter wasn’t interested in really justifying the motives of a lone guerrilla fighter from the National Liberation Front of America, who manages to hijack Air Force One and promises to crash the plane into a New York-sized prison in the name of workers and oppressed. It’s just something that happens, as easy as breathing, and Carpenter is focused on what happens when people are forced to react to this outsized situation.
Not all that much attention is even paid to the screaming guerrilla terrorist in the cockpit, but her one speech gets at a lot of what Escape from New York is about: being a worker, doing your job, and getting on with things even though your boss is an asshole. For Lee Van Cleef’s Police Commissioner Hauk, that means figuring out how to rescue the President of the United States (Donald Pleasance).
And that means sending in Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a former war hero who’s been arrested for robbing the Federal Reserve and can receive a presidential pardon should he deliver the president to safety. Since this movie debuted, Snake has become an icon, even inspiring Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid character of the same name.
Russell had first met Carpenter when the two worked on a 1980 made-for-TV film about the life of Elvis Presley. Prior to that, Russell was mainly known as a Disney celebrity, a teen heartthrob in a dozen projects that were part of what’s considered a poor period for the studio’s live-action releases. In a dynamic that stands true to this day, the aging Disney celebrity was eager to prove they were a real actor with sex appeal and legitimate dramatic abilities. For Miley Cyrus, this meant delivering albums like Bangerz. For Kurt Russell, it meant playing Snake Plissken.
It was an “opportunity to create a character without any social redeeming values,” Russell told Entertainment Weekly in 2013. Snake defined hyper-masculine sexuality in the 1980s as blunt, quiet, damaged, and above all else determined. The audience is never told what happened to Snake in between war-time heroics flying over Leningrad and robbing a bank, but it’s heavily implied that sometime, somewhere, he was screwed over. Probably more than once.
Plissken’s sexuality is literally tattooed on his skin, in the form of a cobra on his abdomen, but to character has little time to do more than glance seductively in someone’s direction once inside New York. A timer keeps Snake on the move, promising to kill him in under 24 hours via microscopic explosive capsules implanted in his carotid arteries. Carpenter takes him on a tour of the city that might have appealed to tourists, including a visit to the World Trade Center and a Broadway musical.
But as any New Yorker will tell you, what makes the city hum isn’t the big attractions but the people. Snake encounters an absolutely stacked cast of characters, from a cabbie played by Ernest Borgnine to Harry Dean Stanton as a friend from his past who would rather be called “Brain” than “Harold.” And then comes the only man tough enough to rise to the top of this hellscape: Isaac Hayes as the Duke of New York. Everyone stands out in Escape, even Season Hubley as “Girl In Chock Full o' Nuts,” who briefly tries to convince Snake to take her with him.
Escape from New York was filmed in St. Louis, which sounds like a cop-out until one considers that New York City was not the only place in the country suffering from serious socioeconomic turmoil in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Thanks to a shrinking population and a devastating 1976 fire, sections of St. Loius were practically abandoned at the time of filming, allowing Carpenter to emulate the lived-in feeling of an abandoned city.
On the DVD commentary for Escape from New York, Carpenter calls Snake “a guy after my own heart” and explains that he “has no respect for anybody,” adding:
“His lines indicate that he doesn’t know who’s President, he doesn’t know what’s what, or where he’s going, and he doesn’t care, nonetheless.”
Unlike other action movies of the day, there’s no real ending, heroic or otherwise, for Snake. He just keeps moving.
Escape from New York is now streaming on HBO Max.