My usual home media reviews tend to be of off-kilter gems or cult oddities that have never been on home video before or have a trouble past coming to the small screen properly. That’s both not the case and very much so with Escape from New York. The movie itself needs zero introduction with pretty much anyone frequenting this site likely at least being familiar with the exploits of Snake Plissken if not being a hardcore fan of them. And those in the latter camp will know just as well as I do that Escape from New York has never really gotten the home video treatment that it deserves. Until now. Sort of.
For full disclosure, I’ve never been that big of a fan of Escape from New York. I like it, for sure, but it lacks that certain oomph that the best Carpenter films have; the all out dread of The Thing or Halloween, the campy pleasures of Big Trouble In Little China or They Live and even the visceral thrills of Assault on Precinct 13. Those films may all have a bigger place in my Carpenter loving heart than either Snake Plissken flick does – does anyone really like Escape from LA? – but I do enjoy them to some extent and have always been a fan of Carpenter, even when he’s not at the top of his game. There’s a sincerity to his work that even the bad films somehow maintain – yes, even The Ward – and that’s refreshing if not flat out charming.
I’m not going to go through any length to explain the plot of Escape from New York, if you need that it is easy enough to find. But, having not seen it in quite a while, it does hold up better than I thought that it would. Kurt Russell owns every scene that he’s in and the rest of the B-movie royalty cast – Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Issac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrien Barbeau, Tom Atkins, Charles Cyphers – are in top form as well. This is a strangely character driven piece for Carpenter – even if titles like The Thing are pretty much entirely character driven – with much of the action being confined to sudden bursts and rather tame as far as violence is concerned. This is great fun though, if you don’t try to take it too seriously. It’s really goofy – more so than I remembered it being – and it does drag in the last act, but this is quality meat-and-potatoes genre cinema that doesn’t get made often anymore. It may not be my favorite Carpenter flick – or even my favorite Carpenter/Russell pairing – but it’s hard to resist its charms.
Now, the part most are waiting for: how is the Blu-ray? Well, it’s better than what we’ve had before at least. Sort of. The thing here is, Escape from New York has never been a particularly pretty movie. It’s actually rather ugly, to be honesty. The vast majority of it is photographed in the dark – it pretty much all takes place at night – and it looks rather soft at that. The blacks here are black enough and the colors – what there are – seem faithfully represented, but it still looks pretty drab. This is an improvement on the MGM Blu-ray, which isn’t hard to do. It’s certainly sharper than that release – it is a new 2K transfer after all – and the colors and blacks are better presented. However, and this is a big caveat, the source here seems to be in worse shape somehow. I’m not sure where Scream Factory got their source or what that source is, but there is damage present in ways that it is not on the MGM transfer. Either the source changed or restoration work wasn’t as thorough. Whatever the case, this is what we have and it’s a trade-off of sorts. You get overall better picture quality with the SF transfer but you’ll have more dirt/debris than before. Personally, I’ll take that over poor resolution and bad contrast. But that’s me. This transfer will likely be a matter of preference and I’m sure that fans will be vocal about it upon release.
The audio here is either 5.1 DTS HD track or a 2.0 DTS HD track. I only sampled the former as I will always stand by something being presented as it was originally screened, and this was very much screened in stereo. The 5.1 sounds fine albeit a tad unbalanced, which is to be expected from a master designed to incorporate new channels. The 2.0 track is solid and loud in all of the right places. I’m not sure that these tracks differ much from the MGM release, but I don’t have any complaints regardless.
Fans should be very pleased with extras here. A big contention of MGM’s Blu-ray release was the lack of special features, including those on their 2-disc DVD set released only a few years prior. SF have corrected those wrongs in a big way here. Nearly everything on that set has been ported over and a bunch of additional supplements have been included as well, which is what I’ll go over in detail. The first big new extra is a commentary by Adrienne Barbeau and Dean Cundy (the film’s DP), which is moderated by Horrorhound’s Sean Clark – who you’ve likely seen on other SF releases so far. The commentary is very conversational, with more of an emphasis on anecdotes and banter than on technical information. I can’t imagine fans being displeased by this, though some – including myself – may want for more techy material from Cundy than we get. Then there’s a few new featurettes: ‘Scoring the Escape: A Discussion with Composer Allan Howarth’, ‘Big Challenges in Little Manhattan: The Visual Effects of Escape from New York’, ‘On Set with John Carpenter: The Images of Escape from New York’, ‘My Night on the Set: An Interview with Filmmaker David DeCoteau’ and ‘I Am Taylor: An Interview with Actor Joe Unger’. None of these are particularly lengthy, with the longest being about twenty minutes and all together they come in at about an hour of content. Each one is worth a watch, with the Allan Howarth and visual effects supplements being of most interest to me and providing enough information to leave me both fulfilled and wanting for more. Keep in mind that you also have all of the old supplements from MGM’s 2 disc DVD set, including two awesome commentary tracks and a bunch of video features. This is the definitive release of Escape from New York if you’re going by special features.
Scream Factory’s release is hard to not recommend to fans of Escape From New York provided they’re aware of the (continued) issues with the film’s presentation. At this point, it’s hard to imagine the film looking any better at home than it does here – as unfortunate as that is – and the supplemental package is exhaustive. I think that most fans will be happy with what they get here, and those that aren’t don’t really have much (at least better) to turn to instead. The movie itself is the same as you remember, for better or worse. It may not be my favorite of Carpenter’s work but it’s plenty of fun and I’m glad to see it getting the respect that the rest of his cannon has been lately.