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It's been a few years since I last saw John Carpenter's Escape From New York (1981), but it's one of those reliably fun movies that occupies its own little timeless bubble of escapist entertainment. It's also near the middle of the director's incredible early winning streak; this was several years after he excited audiences with Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), and The Fog (1980), and just one year before he upped the ante with The Thing, perhaps one of the most impressive remakes of an established sci-fi classic to date. Like those other films, Escape From New York's atmosphere oozes from every pore and elevates its core story to greater heights. Armed with memorable characters, strong performances, another tight score by Carpenter (his first of nine collaborations with Alan Howarth), and clever special effects, Escape From New York remains just as potent almost 35 years later.
The setup is simple: former soldier and bank robber Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell, in his second of five collaborations with Carpenter after 1979's Elvis) is tasked with rescuing the President (Donald Pleasance) after Air Force One is hijacked and crashes in Manhattan. If Snake succeeds, his record will be wiped clean. The tricky part? In the world of Escape From New York, it's 1997 and Manhattan is now a maximum security prison surrounded by a 50-foot containment wall. Getting in will be tricky---let alone getting back out---and navigating the streets won't be fun, either. He's skilled enough to get the job done...but he's only got 22 hours, or the President will miss a world-changing peace summit and New York Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) will permanently pull Snake's plug.
Escape From New York continues to work well because it's got just enough B-movie charm to go with its A-movie execution. It's a deceptively simple story that works on many levels, the performances are routinely strong, Carpenter and Howarth's score gives it a minimalist, wide-open backdrop, and there's a winking humor that ensures its deadly-serious plot gets delivered with a confident smirk instead of being either too serious or too campy. Aside from Snake, some of the supporting characters have silly names like "Cabbie" (Ernest Borgnine), "Brain" (Harry Dean Stanton), "Slag" (the late Ox Baker), and "The Duke of New York, A-Number-1, the Big Man" (Isaac Hayes), but Escape From New York's got such a wickedly smart sense of humor and late-night appeal that it's almost impossible not to get sucked in every time. John Carpenter's then-wife Adrienne Barbeau (as "Maggie", Brain's girlfriend) certainly doesn't hurt either...but for my money, The Duke's chandelier-draped Cadillac is what really seals the deal.
In recent decades, Escape From New York debuted on DVD by MGM as a barebones disc in 2000, then we got a fully-loaded Collector's Edition in 2003 before it finally made the jump to high definition in Fox's 2010 Blu-ray that omitted all of those pesky special features. It seems like every edition of Escape From New York has gotten marginally better without being truly definitive, and the trend continues with Shout Factory's new Collector's Edition Blu-ray that follows past Carpenter releases like Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog, and They Live. The good news here is that all of the old extras from 2003's Collector's Edition have returned with a host of new ones, which makes this release's somewhat disappointing visual "upgrade" a little easier to stomach. Either way, it's a fun release that falls almost perfectly in line with the main feature itself: entertaining...and just a little rough around the edges.
Video & Audio Quality
Overall, Shout's new Collector's Edition of Escape From New York looks no better or worse than the 2010 Blu-ray (okay, maybe a little better). It's advertised as a new 2K scan of the inter-positive, and rest assured this 2.35:1, 1080p transfer does look different: the image is slightly brighter, a little more crisp at times, and the film's mostly dark and murky color palette doesn't look quite as pink as it used to. But there still isn't much texture or shadow detail; whether due to the lack of an expensive studio restoration or the source material, this new visual presentation still won't floor first-time or established fans, especially those with larger displays. Yes, that faint blue vertical line still creeps in on occasion, and there's a blue horizontal line that flashes in for a few milliseconds right after the 40-minute mark. Additionally, some of the computer display text exhibits some pretty harsh blooming, possibly due to artificial contrast boosting. Dirt and debris could also be spotted at times, but it's hardly distracting. This is still a perfectly watchable disc, but videophiles will undoubtedly complain about "what could have been".
DISCLAIMER: The images featured in this review are decorative and do not represent this Blu-ray's native 1080p resolution.
Luckily, the audio isn't saddled with as many gray areas. Viewers are given the choice of either DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 or 2.0 mixes during the main feature...which is an especially nice touch, since MGM's original Blu-ray omitted the two-channel option. There's excellent panning and sound placement during key moments in the film---not just the action sequences---and the synth-heavy soundtrack by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth has never sounded better. Overall, both options serve up a well-defined atmosphere with relatively crisp dialogue, good balance and no flagrant audio distortions of any kind. Optional English subtitles are included during the main feature only.
Menu Design, Presentation, and Packaging
The plain-wrap interface utilizes Shout's standard "sidebar" template, while the second disc refreshingly just dumps everything of interest on one page with minimal pre-menu distractions. This release is housed in a dual-hubbed keepcase with attractive reversible artwork; the outside (and matching slipcover) features a colorful new design by Paul Shipper, while the interior replicates the vintage poster design seen below. No inserts are included.
A fantastic mix of old and new bonus features is included here, giving Escape From New York
the extra love missing from MGM's original Blu-ray. First and foremost is a brand new Audio Commentary
with actress Adrienne Barbeau and director of photography Dean Cundey; it's moderated by longtime horror enthusiast Sean Clark, who participates in several other new supplements as well. Both key speakers do a good job of filling this feature-length track with a number of interesting perspectives and personal memories...but they admit to not having seen the film in years, so it's a little slow at first. One odd technical note for this commentary, however: Cundey's buried a little low in the mix and some of his comments are hard to decipher, so you may have to turn this track up a little.
Also of great interest are five brand new featurettes created exclusively for this release. "Big Challenges in Little Manhattan: The Visual Effects of Escape from New York" (14:28) sits down with VFX contributors Dennis and Robert Skotak, who briefly detail the film's clever use of miniatures, matte paintings, and 70mm photography to blend many of the effects shots together seamlessly. "Scoring the Escape: A Discussion with Composer Alan Howarth" (18:58) is even better, as the frequent Carpenter collaborator talks about three separate soundtrack releases, his first professional memories with the director, a few short live performances, and hints about future projects. "On the Set with John Carpenter: The Images of Escape from New York" (10:49) sits down with Kim Gottlieb-Walker, the on-set photographer who worked with Carpenter on a number of his other films and recently wrote a book about it. Not surprisingly, there are some terrific candid photos here, as well as a number of personal memories shared.
The other two brand new featurettes aren't quite as in-depth but still worth a look. "I Am Taylor: An Interview with Actor Joe Unger" (8:48) features the actor who played Snake's sidekick in the film's deleted original opening, who shares his thoughts about working with Carpenter and company. "My Night on the Set: An Interview with Filmmaker David DeCoteau" (5:03), plays catch-up with the prolific director who was an 18 year-old production assistant at Roger Corman's Venice Studios when the studio did a few last-minute shots for Escape From New York. It's a brief but interesting diversion. All five of these new featurettes are presented in 1080p with lossless 2.0 audio.
Unlike Fox's disappointing 2010 Blu-ray, Shout Factory's new disc also ports over all the relevant bonus features from MGM's slick-packaged 2003 Collector's Edition DVD. These supplements are led by two more feature-length Audio Commentaries; one features Kurt Russell and John Carpenter all the way back from the 1994 laserdisc days, while the other pairs up late producer Debra Hill with production designer Joe Alves. Also returning are the "Return to Escape From New York" Documentary, the 10-minute Deleted Original Opening sequence (which, again, looks pretty rough, although the new "I Am Taylor" featurette shows a few clips in much better condition), a nice Promotional Gallery featuring about four dozen images, and a pair of original Theatrical Trailers.
Gone and forgotten are two promotional items from the Collector's Edition DVD mini-comic, and one teaser trailer may be unaccounted for. Otherwise, this is a fantastic and diverse collection of extras that fans will enjoy digging through. Optional subtitles are sadly not included, but some of these older extras are given a nice bump to HD.
Escape From New York holds up after almost 35 years thanks to terrific lead performances, memorable characters, a cool story, and more than enough atmosphere to keep you sucked in. It's both an entertaining slice of dystopian sci-fi and an interesting preview for even greater (or at least equally good) Carpenter efforts later in the decade including The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, and They Live. Shout Factory's new Collector's Edition is more of a visual side-step than a genuine leap forward from the slightly disappointing 2010 Blu-ray...but the entertaining new extras blend seamlessly with those ported from the 2003 Collector's Edition DVD and creates the best edition by default, which also makes it a safe choice for those who don't own it on Blu-ray yet. So while this isn't quite the elusive "definitive release", it's still a lot of fun to dig through and fans will enjoy every minute. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work and runs a website or two. In his free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, hanging out with his hot wife, and writing in third person.