Only in Escape from New York could someone “kick your ass out of the world.”
In 1981 John Carpenter and Kurt Russell gave us the anti-hero Snake Plissken. If it is true that “no man is an island” then someone forgot to tell John Carpenter, although I suspect it is more the case that Carpenter just quite simply doesn’t agree; nor does Kurt Russell. As far as director and star were concerned, they were creating a character in Snake Plissken who was that island; a subversive character for a subversive film.
Escape from New York is not quite simply just another John Carpenter action film. It is something more than that, a moment in which the identity of the American auteur appears on the screen. Escape from New York’s producer, co-writer of Halloween and Carpenter’s ex, Debra Hill believes that John Carpenter is Snake Plissken; hence Plissken’s identity is an exaggerated version of director John Carpenter.
Carpenter’s dislike for authority is so natural that he almost seems to misplace it. Whilst discussing the making of the film in ‘Return to Escape from New York’, there is a visible moment in which he realises this personal truth. At other times he will wear it as a badge of honour, happy to admit that he is a proactive adversary to authority. Despite his success in the film industry, Carpenter perceives himself as an outsider. He believes along with all horror directors he sits on the last but one row, only the pornography directors seated any further back, and in one derogatory comment he stated, “In the US, I`m a bum.”
Escape from New York is by no stretch of the imagination a patriotic film. Plissken is a proponent of the individual over the collective, yet he is not for the American individual. Ex-military turned criminal, Snake has no allegiance except to himself, man as island, with a disregard for authority and collectively the human race; something Plissken may in fact not give a shit about.
At one point Snake shoots from the hip, telling Hauk (Lee Van Cleef): “I don’t give a fuck about your war… or your president.” In that one telling moment, Escape from New York became a subversive film, its hero unpatriotic, and an adversary of the highest authority.
Any personality traits Plissken and Carpenter may share are exaggerated in the cinematic world of Escape from New York. An uncivilised futuristic world, the film exaggerates through the guise of cinema Carpenter’s moderate feelings of distrust towards authority and feelings of being an outsider.
The first draft of the film had been completed in 1974. The themes of isolation and the claustrophobic urban hells were formed well before Escape from New York made it to the screen; pre-dating Assault on Precinct 13. It was not his breakout film that introduced these thematic concerns, rather it evolved them. Even prior to Assault on Precinct 13 Carpenter had a penchant for isolating his protagonists, creating claustrophobic hells for his characters.
Carpenter asked friend Nick Castle to assist in the rewrite of the script prior to production. It was Castle who scripted Plissken’s humorous dialogue, a penchant for saying amusingly the wrong thing at the wrong time; or rather the wrong thing at the right time. Whilst Carpenter gave us the angry anti-hero, Castle gave us the humorous anti-hero. He made the subversive character and the subversive nature of the film entertainingly and memorably so.
When one looks at Escape from New York, it can seem to be a contradiction, though only for simplicity’s sake. Pigeonholing is used as a means to identify the sum of the director plus his work in the simplest possible terms. So, the sum generally works better if we ignore Carpenter’s non-horror films and brand him a horror director, subtracting those pesky cult action films that would only serve to complicate the maths; one of which is Escape from New York.
Bookending his horror double bill of Halloween and The Fog are Assault on Precinct 13, and Escape from New York. Within this five year span Carpenter’s filmography is split between horror and cult action cinema. Halloween’s commercial success and its reputation as the inaugural slasher film made Carpenter synonymous with horror, compounded around the time by The Fog, and his Sci-Fi horror The Thing.
Michael Myer’s may have been a product of Carpenter’s imagination, but it is the shadow of his film and creation that Carpenter cannot escape; no matter how often he has leant his imagination to the action genre.
Following Escape from New York Carpenter would begin work immediately on The Thing, and if anything from the five films starting with Assault on Precinct 13 one can discern a pattern. From the urban western and futuristic action film which bookend his horror double bill, the placement of Escape from New York represents Carpenter’s career as a swinging pendulum between action and horror cinema.
Furthermore, over the coming years he would show us his creative and inventive identity by making the gentle science-fiction film Starman, the martial arts cult action film Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and the cult science-fiction film They Live (1988), centred around alien invasion. Interspersed of course are the inevitable horror films, but Carpenter shows us his creative and inventive flare, fusing together genres in these cult action films, and if anything Carpenter’s foray into action cinema was always just as inventive as his journey into horror.
Identifying Carpenter as a horror director does this creative American auteur a disservice, as well as the action genre that owes Carpenter a debt of gratitude.