Adam takes a trip down memory lane with Scream Factory’s beautiful Blu-Ray release of Escape from LA.
Twenty-Three years ago, give or take a month, an 18-year-old sat with bated breath for the sequel he had been waiting for the better part of his life… ESCAPE FROM LA. Little did he realize that it would take 20 years for him to accept the terms and conditions of said Carpenter Sequel.
John Carpenter’s Escape from New York from the opening frame to closing title is as perfect a sci-fi actioner as has ever been created. Compact, thrilling, economical, funny, dangerous, articulate, and most of all completely and utter awesome. Snake Plissken as played by Kurt Russell is The Man with No Name, Han Solo, and Ethan Edwards before him bastard, our (anti)hero for the 1980s. The production design was as rotted to the core as most of the major metropolitan areas were at the time (Chicago, New York, LA, Detroit all had their “demilitarized zones”). The direction was on par with Leone’s complete control of the medium in Once Upon a Time in America. The score was as iconic as any Ennio Morricone score. All the touchstones that made Escape from New York what it is, Escape from LA was not.
The ending moments of the sequel, that 18-year-old tried to convince his psyche that he had seen all those things that made Escape from New York a perfect film in Escape from LA. It was merely his geek subconscious unable to deal with the simple idea that a sequel to one of his most beloved films was terrible. Over the course of that year, the 18-year-old grew embittered. Knowing nothing of how “royally screwed” Carpenter got by the Studio, cutting his budget in half two weeks before filming and having to “rewrite” on the fly. This bore no barring or care to the 18-year-old, who only saw lackluster storytelling and one of his favorite movie icons smeared forever.
Ten years had passed until the next time the 18-year-old would see the film. Armed with more film knowledge, understanding that Carpenter was “screwed over”, and a healthy appreciation for B-Movie crapulence he watches the film. The 18-year-old still could not forgive Escape from LA for its trespasses. The film felt like a sequel by committee rather than being a true sequel to the classic. Escape from LA was a film of “checkmarks” as though Carpenter, Russell, and Deborah Hill (who are all credited screenwriters on the film) had a “laundry list” of plot points to make to maximize some geek nostalgia for the original.
Eighteen years had passed since Escape from LA had graced the silver screen. The 18-year-old, now 36, begins a John Carpenter “Film Retrospective”. The retrospective is for the 18-year-old’s own amusement and watches every film directed by Carpenter. This celluloid atrocity is scheduled between Memoirs of an Invisible Man and Dark Star two films that have never sat well with the 18-year-old.
Be it because or in spite of being sandwiched between two lesser Carpenter efforts, the 18-year-old finds a bit of joy in Escape from LA. The movie is more a meta-commentary on both Sequels and Los Angeles’s image-driven culture. To call Escape from LA an action film or a dystopian thriller would be doing it a major disservice. The film is none of those genres but does have specific elements that are associated with such.
What is Escape from LA if not an action film, or dystopian thriller? What does it propose to do as a film? Why did everyone reject the film out right? Why do people still reject the film?
Escape from LA is a stupid but blisteringly-moronic comedic parody of Escape from New York. Having none of the means Carpenter needed to create the “true sequel” he wanted, he created a film that was a giant middle finger to Los Angeles (the town that continually screwed him), and Sequels (which Carpenter never wanted to do in the first place). Taken on its own terms, it works beautifully created a mockery of big-budget filmmaking and the business of making sequels. The film plays as though directed by Edgar Wright circa 2011 post-Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.
All of the conventions of a sequel are here; bigger scale, punchier one-liners, stakes played out on a bigger scale, similar villains, and plot points to the original. There is no heft to the proceedings. The stakes don’t matter. Everything seems to be all for nigh. At first glance an audience would think that it was Carpenter off his game. Not the case. Nothing is meant to be taken seriously. Nothing matters in this film. Carpenter hates the idea of a sequel to Escape from New York as much as an audience member does watching it. This is the director giving another middle finger to the establishment as he had with his original fifteen years prior.
The original was the film equivalent of a punk rock album; the aforementioned middle finger to the establishment, and the rise of Reagan-era conservative politics. Unlike an earlier film from Carpenter, They Live where the text is subtext both Escape from New York and its sequel the subtext is hidden in plain sight. Escape from New York is genuine, Carpenter loves Snake Plissken, loves the world he’s created. Escape from LA is snarky, in-your-face stupid, Carpenter dislikes that he must return Plissken to a sort of entropy of character. What was once an avatar, for both Carpenter and Kurt Russell, is forced to conform to an era that the hero was never built for; the mushy soft 90’s.
Rather than make a political statement, Escape from LA makes a statement about sequels and the culture of Los Angeles. The sequel feels almost beat for beat like the original, a “Greatest Hits” compilation with a “few new songs”. The plots are identical; A Presidential Air Plane is shot down over a City Prison. Plissken is brought in by the warden with an offer; bring back presidential secrets and earn his freedom. The only thing that has changed is the location, and the people Plissken interacts with have an LA-esque flavor to them. Of course, there would be the Plastic Surgeon cult leader, the gang leader would be Hispanic (modeled after Zach De la Rocha, lead singer of Rage Against the Machine), a transvestite revolutionary freedom fighter (played by Pam Grier no less), and Steve Buscemi playing Steve Buscemi in a pork pie.
In 1996 this was designed to be rejected. It is blatant that Carpenter despises every sort of sun-soaked Angelino, and the troupes of sequels. Audiences were too close to see this, too much anticipation to embrace something so angry, so gleefully stupid… something so Carpenter-esque. This was not just Carpenter playing with normal audiences. This was the director screwing with Film Geek’s expectations too. Everyone rejected Escape from LA en mass. Looking back on the film not with an ironic view but as a Carpenter’s commentary/evisceration it works beautifully.
Three years prior Carpenter tested the waters of this sort of meta-commentary to the genre with In the Mouth of Madness. Though not blatant an attack on Film Geeks or Geek culture in general, it does have its sly nods to the hyperbolic nature of fandom. In the film anyone who reads fictional author Sutter Cane’s latest work goes insane or is engulfed into the work of the book.
Carpenter knew audiences would begin to make a cult out of genre filmmaking; In the Mouth of Madness is about that very theme. Though Carpenter in 1994 had not seen audiences would want nothing more than for the progenitors of the genre’s greatest hits to just recycle said stories over and over again. “Just play the hits”, you can almost hear seething through social media nowadays.
By 1996 Carpenter had figured out audiences at large; they want nothing more than their genre stories with a new shiny topcoat, not venturing further than original creations from their childhood. The writing was on the wall; audiences would eventually hold dear what was once disposable. Fan clamoring for sequels to Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China, when on press tours probably sped the process up. Carpenter a man who suffers no fools, could be seen as “fed up” with none of his fan base wanting “new” from him.
The director gave them everything they wanted, both barrels. Escape from LA gave audiences exactly what they wanted: an S-E-Q-U-E-L. The film produced what was required of a next chapter in a “series”. The same story with lots of Bondo and a new ‘cheap paint job’. Snake Plissken as the icon, doing the impossible. The impossible being and not limited to, surfing the narrows with Peter Fonda, hitting a half-court shot ala Steph Curry, and taking down the entire world with a click of the button.
The story gave you a “newly minted” version of the same characters. Harry Dean Stanton’s Brain was traded out for Steve Buscemi in a pork pie (predating hipsterism by seventeen years). Adrienne Barbeau gave rise to Pam Grier as a transvestite freedom fighter. Lee Van Cleef and Tom Adkins’s LA counterparts are Stacy Keach and Michelle Forbes.
All of these deficiencies work for the film. Carpenter himself has equated the sequel and original to Rio Bravo, and El Dorado. The Howard Hawks directed, John Wayne starring “spiritual cousins” westerns. They are essentially the same film, one better than the other. It is baffling that Carpenter has been quoted that Escape from LA is a better film. Though, maybe not, it is possible that Carpenter holds affection for Escape from LA as it burns down everything done in Escape from New York in effigy. Notoriously, defiant it would make complete sense that the director would adore the film that shattered a possible film franchise with glee.
If only more modern filmmakers could be as ballsy as John Carpenter. If only….
The new 4K Transfer Scream Factory has produced is beautiful, sharp, and clear. So much so the transfer points out the VFX flaws of the film (which there are many). This isn’t a backhanded compliment merely something that any viewer will be keenly aware of. That said, the image looks gorgeous with a high contrast picture. The image is sharp but not so sharp as to DNR out the grain, which is definitely present and healthy.
The Special Features
- NEW A Little Bit Off Beat
- NEW Beverly Hills Workshed
- NEW Part of the Family
- NEW Miss A Shot, Get A Shot
- NEW One Eye Is Better Than None
- NEW The Renderman
- Theatrical Trailer
- TV Spots
A little Bit Offbeat – is an all-new 8-minute interview with actor Stacy Keach. Beginning with how he came to work with Carpenter by way of Walter Hill, Keach is a delight. The actor discusses the character he plays, working with Kurt Russell, the production, the John Carpenter legacy, and the release of the film. Questions are done through a screen prompt.
Beverly Hills Workshed – is an all-new 9-minute interview with Bruce Campbell. Note, the interview must have been done just recently as it’s a phone interview. The movie poster, some great up-close photos of Rick Baker’s Makeup FX, and clips play as Campbell discusses the makeup process, being hired by Carpenter, Russell’s cool demeanor, the release/reception, you’ll find out why this is called “Beverly Hills Workshed” (Campbell fans will already know the story), and cheekily answers about the possible sequel. Questions are done through a screen prompt.
Part of the Family – is an all-new 26-minute interview with actor and Carpenter regular Peter Jason. Beginning with his origins as an athlete turned actor in high school, Jason does a great career overview. He does eventually get to Carpenter’s work, and specifically, Escape from LA and actually being a PA on Carpenter’s sets. Questions are done through a screen prompt.
Miss a shot, you get a shot – is an all-new 15-minute interview with George Corraface. The begins actor discusses his multi-lingual background in French, German, Greek, and finally in America. How Director Peter Brook (Famously know for Lord of the Flies adaptation from the 1960s). An interesting tidbit about replacing Timothy Dalton as Columbus in the Sylkind’s Columbus movie. The actor does get to how he got the part in Escape From LA and working on the production. Questions are done through a screen prompt.
One eye is better than none – is an all-new 18-minute interview with Makeup artist James MacPherson. Beginning with his origins in the New York Theatre scene and a commercial that brought him to LA. How he got to meet and eventually work with Rick Baker. He does discuss his work on Escape from LA but all too briefly. Questions are done through a screen prompt.
The Renderman – is an all-new 19-minute interview with VFX artist David Jones. Jones discusses his humble beginnings and basically conned his way into a job Disney via Buena Vista Visual Effects, by saying he was a “renderman”. The interview does lead to his work on Escape From LA and the production itself. Note, this is a fairly technical discussion. Those that like this type of discussion will be pleased. He is very honest about the quality of the visual effects. Questions are done through a screen prompt.
Rounding out the special features are the Theatrical Trailer (1:34) which is the great teaser trailer, 5 30-second TV Spots (2:34), and a still gallery. The Still Gallery is 65 stills ranging from Lobby Cards, Production photos, Behind the scenes photos (with some cool model work shown), and Posters from various countries.