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CIA shows 1981’s “Escape from New York”

Editor’s Note: In the spirit of Halloween, The Observer reviewed a film by director and screenwriter John Carpenter, known for his work in the horror genre. While the film was released in 1981, it was reviewed using today’s standards.

On Friday, Oct. 16, I took a trip over to Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA) to watch a classic film brought back to life. The Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque shows both new and old international and independent films fifty weeks every year, and seeing how it is the Halloween season, I think it’s fitting that they chose to show a digital restoration of the cult classic, “Escape from New York,” by horror legend John Carpenter. (Check out some neat upcoming screenings.)

The 1981 sci-fi action thriller depicts a dystopian future where, in an effort to deal with America’s massive prison population, the U.S. government turns the entire island of Manhattan into the country’s only maximum security prison. The story itself shows former special forces soldier turned criminal Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) fighting his way through the criminal-infested island in an attempt to save the president of the United States (Donald Pleasence) after Air Force One crashes into the city.

Familiar with Carpenter’s work, I was excited to see what is regarded as one of his earliest critical and financial successes. And while the film’s age does show in my opinion, it’s still a fun ride all these decades later. With an admittedly silly premise, the film strikes a fine balance between taking itself seriously and enjoying a bombastic, over-the-top tone. The world the film establishes is suitably gritty, but also filled with life. The dark atmosphere is juxtaposed with moments of levity, including a costumed dance shown on stage by the prisoners, making the environment more colorful and diverse. The characters who live in it feel real and add an extra element of sincerity to the film, especially due to the performances.

Though I feel that the acting may be one of the movie’s most dated aspects, between Plissken’s inconsistently raspy voice and the goofy behavior of his comic relief sidekick, the Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), I won’t argue that it’s all perfect for the movie. All of the performers, especially Russell and Lee Van Cleef as Police Commissioner Hauk, seem to relish immersing themselves in their roles, acting with such energy and passion that they cannot help but suck the viewer in. I also feel that the villain, the Duke (Isaac Hayes) should be applauded for this.

The action, well choreographed, is creative and exciting, creating numerous memorable scenes. Carpenter also gets to use his skills as a horror director with particularly suspenseful scenes like the car ride down Broadway, wherein hundreds of prisoners pound on the heroes’ car and try to break in.

Ultimately, “Escape from New York” is a film that struggles to hold up after so many years, but is still entertaining and was nonetheless worth showing in the CIA’s Peter B. Lewis Theater.


Film: “Escape from New York”

Release: July 10, 1981

Starring: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Isaac Hayes

Rating: 4/5 stars