Scruffy and stubborn as a mule, Escape from New York is probably a failure for director John Carpenter, but it is a treat for anyone else all the same. Carpenter has been vocal about his genre-DJ dreams of hopscotching from horror to action to Westerns to fulfill his inner-desires of throwing pebbles toward all outsider genres under the sun. More pragmatically, he sought new genres to avoid type-casting as a master of horror. Trouble is that Carpenter’s soul, despite his brain telling him otherwise, was a horror director, and his eye followed his soul. Even Carpenter’s best action material – 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China for one – doesn’t work so much as an action movie; it’s more a deconstruction of American action movie tropes that tickles the rib with how foolish American action movies could be. Whether or not that was Carpenter’s intent, the arguably accidental success of Big Trouble reveals a director who didn’t have much of an eye for conventional action directing, for his action directing was too sluggish and stilted to function as a serious work of the form.
His horror direction, however? Impeccable, sinister, hostile, perfect, as evidenced in the best moments of Escape from New York, where Carpenter’s thorny sci-fi vision keels over into a menagerie of shuffling shadow-types that more closely resemble Romero ghouls than anything else. It seems that, even when he was trying to expand his milieu, Carpenter’s camera kept stubbornly stumbling back to the realms of its comfort. Not that Carpenter’s failure to hold fast to his vision of successfully trying out new genres matters to an audience member; as horror, Escape from New York is wonderful, and when it is busy trying to distract itself from its better horror impulses, it is still an off-the-cuff correspondence of tones and moods and genres dancing with one another, even when they are sometimes stepping on each other’s feet.
Carpenter wanted to go big or go home, and the incomparable success of his bargain-bin budgeted horror masterwork Halloween allowed him to do just that, fashioning a futuristic cyberpunk techno-horror New York walled off by the US government and set to kill as a giant maximum-security prison. While traveling over New York, Air Force One, carrying the President (Donald Pleasence), crashes and ol’ Pres is the only survivor, captured by the domineering crime boss of the prison, The Duke of New York (a snidely Isaac Hayes stealing scenes). In goes the government’s only hope, a pastiche and exaggeration of crypto-anarchist American libertarianism, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell).
With a lean, cut-throat set-up to rival a classic Western, Escape pays homage to genres far and wide. But all-comers thrive only under Carpenter’s husky, misty hall-of-mirrors treatment of New York itself, always entrenched in the horror genre and the star of the show excepting Russell. Clearly using his new-found big-boy toys to great use, Carpenter fashioned a destructive perversion of late-’70s New York cynicism and gloom that accentuates and galvanizes the poverty and destitution of the era by literally positing New York as a prison of no escape, left for death by a nation that lost interest in the once-beaming city long-ago. But Carpenter’s scrappy, lo-fi heart remained, and he was first and foremost a director who knew how to stretch a budget; the omnipresent sense of New York itself in the film is enhanced by how empty and underpopulated it is, Carpenter still knowing the benefit of harsh, clipped minimalism to depict his locales as oppressive monsters swallowing all in their paths and leaving nothing in their wake.
Which doesn’t mean Carpenter’s head didn’t get ahead of him. He was a technician at heart, duck-taping holes and crevices on his sets so that his camera could capture their fallen, patch-work glory as an accidental-enhancer to the morally-bankrupt tone of his ruined location-work. But he was a reactionary technician, allowing and even tempting his mind to rush forward into exotic locales, stretching his screenplays into obtuse locations only so that Carpenter could dare himself to fix whatever maelstrom of chaos he had wandered into. Half of the fun of a Carpenter vehicle is seeing it just barely falling apart at the seams, introducing sub-characters and episodic interjections that should crumble the film to pieces only so that Carpenter can just barely staple it together and reign it in to a finished product.
His films feel like an accident waiting to happen, and that is what makes them so dangerous. They rush around from, for instance, an impromptu wrestling match that leaves as quickly as it comes to the introduction of an old-timer New York cabbie played by Ernest Borgnine who speaks like a Hawskian screwball character still reciting his lines forty years too late (the connection seems intentional; Carpenter would go to bat for Hawks several times over, from his Rio Bravo update Assault on Precinct 13 to his remake of The Thing From Another World, given the blunt, cruel title The Thing to scare us in our sleep).
And all the while, laconic, brilliant Russell as Plissken, who is a modern-day John Wayne type if ever there was one, gamely rejects the rushing, haphazard nature of Carpenter’s screenplay, cutting through the energy with a whiskey-soaked drawl. Carpenter’s film is always recklessly rampaging about, but Plissken is always there rolling an eye and breathing a little too heavily, shuffling to keep up and drolly mocking Carpenter’s follow-the-leader mentality as a director. Plissken adds a layer of, if not out-right satire of action tropes, at least a cruel, subdued comedy poking fun at the guns-for-hire mercenary nature of so many cocaine-snorting action heroes. Plissken just seems like he’d rather be in a bar with his tenth drink in his hand avoiding the action altogether, something Carpenter always denies him. If the camera got a little too eager and positioned itself where it wasn’t supposed to, we half-except we might see Plissken in a fist-fight with Carpenter himself.
This tension, this ruthless war of attrition, drives the film. We are always aware of the Carpenter who wants to rush forth and have fun with different genres in this New York playground and the Carpenter holding him back to stew in Plissken and the atmospheric mood-setting around him. These two Carpenters create a messy, slap-dash battle indeed, for a messy, slap-dash film never sure of its identity. But that messiness is the film’s majesty; it’s what makes Escape a film with a difference. It feels bandaged up, but it is the bandages that allow us to fixate on the wounds that films today, all spic and span and antiseptically wiped down to corporate sterility, refuse to bask in anymore. Carpenter jumps headfirst into the wounds, and he remembers that those wounds, that damage, is what makes us, and our films, alive and pulsing in the end.