Escape From New York Blu-ray Review

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King Kurt and Big John created one of the greatest bad-asses of all time in Snake

by Chris McEneany Apr 22, 2015 at 7:49 AM - Updated: Apr 22, 2015 at 7:49 AM

  • Movies & TV review


    Escape From New York Blu-ray Review
    SRP: £19.00

    Escape from New York Film Review

    “When I get back I’m going to kill you.”

    Eerily foreshadowing the shocking events of 9/11, in John Carpenter’s classic futuristic thriller, Escape From New York terrorists down Air Force One in the seething cesspit of Manhattan Island’s violent prison. A one-eyed, long-haired renegade war-hero-turned-outlaw is hurled into the maelstrom of anarchy within with instructions to find the captive President and get him out before World War Three erupts.
    Shouldn’t be a problem for Kurt Russell’s Special Forces tough guy, Snake Plissken... but with two microscopic bombs implanted in his neck that will blow in less than twenty four hours, the race is on, and the clock is ticking. Encountering all manner of wild miscreants and ne’er-do-wells, Snake tumbles through a variety of comic-book set-pieces as he infiltrates the hellish prison.

    Crazies come up from the sewers, Indians prowl the Twin Towers, treachery and betrayal is everywhere and the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) has the President in his evil clutches. But, dodging arrows, bullets and spiked baseball bats, Snake keeps his one good eye on the mission and, with cunning, guile, brazen machismo and the timely intervention of a life-saving Yellow Cab, wins the day, and still manages to flip the bird to the fascist establishment.

    With terrific performances, moody and atmospheric photography, and smothered in Carpenter’s awesome and most iconic synth score, Escape From New York is a future-shock satire that only gets cooler as time goes by. Between them, King Kurt and Big John created one of the greatest bad-asses of all time in Snake.

    Blu-ray Picture Quality

    Escape from New York: 2 Disc Collector’s Edition  Blu-ray Picture Quality
    Awww, Snake Plissken on Blu-ray! Wait’ll I tell Eddie!

    Scream’s Escape From New York is presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio via an AVC encode.

    Now, I was very pleased with the MGM transfer. As I have said in my celebratory article on the film, I saw Escape from New York upon its initial theatrical release – twice on day one with my old man – and although it made a huge and long-lasting impression on me, there’s no way that I remember how it looked, other than it being gloriously wide and very, very dark.
    Fans and cineastes have argued back and forth about how the film should look, and Scream’s new US disc is only to cause more head-scratching, I’m afraid.

    Escape From New York certainly did not get a good start in the hi-def realm. Optimum’s UK disc was, quite unanimously, awful. In fact, I backed-out of reviewing that particular edition simply because I couldn’t bring myself to write so many bad things about the treatment that a favourite film of mine had received. We all had high hopes of the version from MGM, even it was to be a bare-bones release. Hands-down, it looked significantly better than the Optimum/StudioCanal disc, and it definitely did look like a hi-def image – albeit one transferred from difficult and testing source material – but many felt that it was a transfer that fell some way below expectations. But folks, I liked that image. Having grown up with the movie, from cinematic debut through VHS and Beta cassettes, Laserdisc, several DVDs, the Optimum BD and then MGM’s, I feel I know the visual standards that have been met, or not met by each and certainly feel justified to claim that MGM’s was actually a far more faithful transfer than many have, otherwise, stated.

    Now, let’s quantify this. That transfer is dark, Very dark. But is it darker than it ought to be? Well, yes, but not by too much, as far as I am concerned. It doesn’t have the crushing depths of blackness that the Optimum release has. It doesn’t lose a considerable amount of detail within such voracious shadows that acres of screen-coverage are regularly swamped and devoured by. The shading in the desolate streets looks convincing to me. The pockets of light from fires and lamps are cast with accuracy. The orange and green hues supply a nicely suffused glow. Yep, it is dark, but not horribly so.

    But a vocal section of fans seem to have gotten their message across to Shout/Scream at any rate, because this new transfer, excitingly billed as being taken from a new 2K scan of the inter-positive, is brighter and boosted both in terms of colour and contrast. And, to my eyes, it doesn’t look quite as good.

    It is as though a deliberate veil, one that Carpenter and DOP Dean Cundey placed over their film specifically and with full intent, has been lifted to reveal elements that, perhaps, should not be seen. Now, to be fair, the image here is not as bad as some people have already and vociferously claimed – in fact, there are times when I found it very appealing – and it does not feature overt grain removal, banding or edge enhancement. It still has texture and still looks like film, and not just a horribly processed digital interpretation of one. The grain, which is minimal, is all present and correct, and only slightly noisier this time around. Escape’s image has always been rather smooth-looking except during one or two optical shots, but there is nothing waxy going on here. Sure, it looks soft. It was always going to look soft. We don’t need to go into the specifics of the anamorphic lenses that Dean Cundey used, or the film-stock that was available. Shot for a relatively low budget back in 1981 against a backdrop of matte-paintings and large-scale miniatures and set, for the overwhelming majority of its duration in murky, deliberately ill-lit night-time, this can still look reasonably accurate to me in terms of black levels and the detail found therein. Shadows still carry plenty of weight and density, still adding abundant visual mood and helping with the depth of the image, and uncompromised by the new visual shift.

    But problems do creep in with the enhanced brightness and colour. Although, as I say, blacks are thankfully unaffected, primaries can now make something of an artificial leap from the screen, meaning that computer displays, graffiti and parts of some costumes have more punch to them. Punch that, arguably, shouldn’t be there. Some highlights bloom a little more than before, as well, which may concern some people more than it did me, but still reflects a concerted effort to lift the film from the murk with, sometimes, questionable results.

    Now, I will say that the vague distortions due to the periphery of Carpenter’s favoured anamorphic framing are still highly prevalent – sides can soften and blur, as can the lower central edge of the image from time to time. This was certainly apparent in the MGM image, and Scream’s doesn’t mask this. You cannot avoid it, and nor should you try. But none of the blurred or out-of-focus elements are a fault of the transfer. There are myriad visual distractions of this type, but I cannot believe that it could ever look any better with regards to the anamorphic push-and-pull focus. However, on a much happier note, no-one does “urban-wide” like Carpenter and Cundey. Halloween looked epic in visual breadth and scope, amazing when you consider that it takes place in bedrooms, sitting rooms and along a few tree-lined streets. And whilst Antonio Bay looked out on massive rolling Pacific vistas, The Fog was at its visual best on the cramped confines of a fishing trawler and in the claustrophobic lighthouse radio station. The Thing found us gliding through US Outpost 31 as its warren of corridors yawned out around us, cleverly isolating us all the more despite the space being created within the image.

    Escape From New York is actually one of Carpenter’s most expansive looking films. Lots of open city streets, big sets and wide, crowded locations. The atmospheric gloom presses down on top of this, of course, but Scream’s disc still showcases those wonderful compositions with precision and eye-roving panache. The thing is, you will see more in the shadows now than you did before... or, perhaps, you may think you do. I fell for this McGuffin more than once. An overturned car that Snake saunters past. The faces of the ambushers in the basement, and the punks abusing the drugged girl. War-paint on the Duke’s background goons. The light coming through windows behind the Duke as he takes bored pot-shots at the President. Detail on the Crazies storming through Chock Full O’ Nuts. Faces in the crowd as Snake battles it out with Slag. But, going back to MGM’s disc, these elements, and many more that appear to be promoted in the Scream transfer, are pretty much all there, too. But a little tweaking seems to have coaxed out more discernability in the new transfer which may have viewers thinking that they are getting an image with more clarity.

    If viewers think they are getting more detail than the MGM disc - they are not.

    As I've said, the orange glows that warm the image from time to time – in the theatre and down in its basement, the arena sequence - are fine, despite the boost, and the rest of the spectrum, although hardly taxed and, for a large part, thematically muted – come across reasonably well, too. The red striped flashes on the helmets of the chopper pilots, the occasional splash of blood, the bright red lights and the blinking computer readouts and the time on Snake's life-clock etc, are bold and vivid. The shimmering rainbow print along the side of the Duke's car has a bit more lustre. The garish gypsy colours of the costumes and the yellow of the cab – these, too, come across well without any smearing, and may even look a touch more vibrant. Well-lit scenes of these colourful folks look sweaty and dust-obscured – but then, they always have done. The green display that reveals the true identity of aircraft David 14, though, does look more blurred than before. The letters making up Air Force One do seem to merge together. But, once again, the altered fidelity shouldn’t really trouble anybody unless they want it to.

    The thin blue vertical line that seems to bug many viewers is still there. Perhaps even more so, as it now appears to crop up a little bit more often. But then again, after hearing so many complaints about it, I was determinedly seeking it out. And, you know what? It never bothered me before, and it doesn’t bother me now. Not one iota. Likewise, the debris on the image which, again, does seem to be a bit more apparent this time around, leading to a picture that doesn’t look as clean as MGM’s.

    If you think JJ Abrams has cornered the market on lens-flares with his Star Trek reboot, then think again – because Carpenter and Cundey virtually write the rule-book on them with this. There’s a nice one that actually forms a blue neon-caught smile across the screen, and plentiful green snakes (appropriately enough) that ripple and bend all over the show as they reflect from the street-lights. Detail is certainly still as improved as the MGM disc, but no more so. Yet, shouldn’t it have been greater given that this is a new scan? Snake's famously “can you see it or not” scar is still a lot clearer and, just as with the MGM, seen in many more shots than before. The texture of the road surfaces, of clothing and on the sides of the helicopters remains suitably well resolved. Object delineation along the ruined streets – buildings, junked cars, signs and wreckage – still appears quite defined. Like I said, you might think there are a few new details here and there - fluttering paper, a swinging signpost, debris on the streets and more shadows-play on the walls, those aforementioned faces in the arena crowd etc - but this new transfer is unlikely to offer anything all that revelatory. Certainly skin texture still looks very soft, and there is no added separation to hair – Snake's, Maggie's and the girl in Chock Full 'O Nuts, especially.

    Overall, I'm happy with the resolution found herein. Escape will never win any awards for scintillating clarity and detail. But whilst the MGM transfer seemed to be doing its best to deliver what goods are available, this one tries to go a step further by brightening things up and, in the process, creating an image that certainly looks different from the one that fans are used to. And, potentially, to its detriment.

    All this said, I am not too disheartened that Scream’s new transfer didn’t live up to its original hype. I have always been much more defensive of their releases than many others, and I don’t feel particularly let down on this occasion either. To be honest, I seriously doubt that we will ever get that elusive 4K scan of the original camera negative and even if we did, I cannot imagine that it would ever look significantly better anyway.

    This does look different. And, for me, it falls just below the image quality of the MGM disc. But, in the grand scheme of things, the majority of people will neither realise, nor care.

    Blu-ray Sound Quality

    Escape from New York: 2 Disc Collector’s Edition  Blu-ray Sound Quality
    Scream’s disc carries the same DTS-HD MA 5.1 track as the previous MGM release, as well as a DTS-HD MA 2.0 option. I stuck with the 5.1 and, pretty much, what I said last time around, applies here.

    And I’m very happy with the DTS-HD MA 5.1 track as well. Whilst it is fair to say that its surround use is sporadic, at best, there has been a nice effort made to present Escape with some genuine wraparound activity and a fuller, more immersive atmosphere. Straight away Carpenter’s synth score kicks in with that awesome Main Title and, I’ll be honest, there was a real shiver going down my spine … that black screen, the white titles, that beat thudding into life. Well, the score sounds terrific, that's for sure. There’s more bite to it, more energy … and it does fill up a lot of the room. The cue “The Duke Arrives” is a stand-out moment. Snake just standing there, arms crossed, as the Duke’s convoy rumbles down the road – Carpenter’s first little tribute to Isaac Hayes sizzling forth with an infernally catchy beat of his own.

    Sadly, as I commented earlier, this same track then plays over the Broadway sequence where it doesn’t sound right at all. Partly this is because the cue, as great as it is, just shouldn’t be played here again, so soon after its first appearance, and also because its new inclusion doesn’t even sound as though it has been mixed appropriately. It just doesn’t fit, pure and simple. Elsewhere, the cues for the finale – the chase across the 69th Street Bridge (those steel drums and sampled percussion) and the resonant, pulse-pounding boom of “Over The Wall” as Snake and the Duke and the Prez all battle it out – sound especially glorious. Deep, solid and burgeoning with warm, meaty vigour all the way across the front and extending right towards you. You can't complain about that.

    A very fine audio presentation for a soundtrack that is predominantly frontal

    I encountered no problems whatsoever with hearing the dialogue – from Kurt's slow, raspy drawl to Van Cleef's guttural brogue to Pleasance's frightened burr (“Are you from the outside?”) to Romero's ghastly hyena-cackle. There are moments when dialogue is subdued and lost amid the general hullabaloo, but this is intrinsic to the original sound design and not a shortcoming of the transfer.

    Effects-wise, there is a lot of clarity. The sound of the injected explosives going into Snake's neck, the ticking clock in Hauk's office, the rattle of the car that Snake has hijacked from the Duke's men, the crunch of cracked flooring under Snake's boot, the impact of spiked baseball bats on bin-lid shields and the thud and echo of high velocity rounds chewing into the wall around a stricken President – these are just some of the effects that now sound better, even if a little different to how they may have sounded on previous releases. By different, I mean slightly tweaked and cleaner, perhaps a tad brighter. And is it just me or are a couple of those manhole-cover clangs that the first Crazy makes now slightly downmixed? Not all of them, the first and last clangs come across well, but those emanating from the second cover that he hits. You can definitely hear it more clearly on other versions. Or maybe I just need some time off.

    Surround usage carries lots of little details. The final chase has explosions rippling around the rear speakers, cars roaring past us, a nice – but grim – blast and debris rattle as Brain takes the wrong route, ending up in tatters on the roof of a wrecked vehicle, and fair bit more. The booby-trapped car that Duke has set up in the foyer of the World Trade Centre offers us a motor chugging away behind us. Crowd roaring and, of course, helicopter rotors whirling around us feature heavily in the wider environment, the latter making a good impression during the early stages of the film. Bombast can still be lacklustre, despite a fair bass level being stretched around the set-up. Gunfire isn't bland, I mean there is some degree of punch to each shot, especially from the Ingram, but the track won't be one that you'll refer back to for reference-quality ballistic dynamics, that's for sure.

    Make no mistake, though, this is a very fine audio presentation for a soundtrack that is predominantly frontal. And, man, that score comes over well.

    Blu-ray Extras

    Escape from New York: 2 Disc Collector’s Edition  Blu-ray Extras
    Whatever my qualms about Scream’s video transfer, I cannot fault their roster of supplements. Being a die-hard fan of Escape, pretty much anything new is like gold dust to me, so I’m afraid I may be quite fawning over this selection.

    This 2-disc release has all the extras from the Special Edition DVD, minus the mini-comic which, by the way, totally trounces the appalling new comic run from Boom-Time that is simply shoddy in every damn department. I have commented previously upon these bonuses, so I will just pay them lip-service here. There is a nice reversible sleeve that actually boasts really good, newly commissioned artwork that I quite admire.

    Commentaries on Disc 1.
    The outstanding commentary track from John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, and the one from the late Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves, is now joined by a brand new track from Adrienne Barbeau and Dean Cundey, and moderated by Sean Clarke. This might not be as electrifying as fans may at first expect, but it is still an absolute joy. There are some elements that both Barbeau and Cundey seem a little hazy over – such as the use of Jamie Lee Curtis as the stark voiceover at the start of the film – but the pair still cover plenty of interesting trivia and memories. There are great reminiscences of working with Harry Dean Stanton, Donald Pleasance and Ernest Borgnine.

    Over on Disc 2, we get a wealth of goodies.

    Big Challenges in Little Manhattan: The Visual Effects of Escape from New York is predominantly presided over by Robert and Dennis Skotak, who reveal what it took to give life to the immense miniatures of the city, via cardboard boxes, matte paintings and animated displays.

    Scoring the Escape: A Discussion with Composer Alan Howarth is very interesting. Although he appears to have exploited his collaboration with John Carpenter quite a bit over the years, Howarth played a major role in creating the soundscape and the music for a slew of his films. Here, he discusses how he became involved with Carpenter and how their working relationship developed. He also goes over the various incarnations that the Escape soundtrack has had, from vinyl to CD and now back to vinyl again, and gives us examples of how he is still evolving and shaping its cues for use in live performances and new recordings.

    On Set with John Carpenter: The Images of Escape from New York showcases the work of Still Photographer Kim Gottlieb-Walker, who worked with Carpenter on Halloween, The Fog, Halloween II and Christine, as well as Escape. She talks about on-set accidents and how she caught some amazing shots. She also has a book out, called simply On-Set With John Carpenter, which I have, and is a fantastic addition to any fan’s collection, boasting may wonderful images, some of which are seen here.

    I Am Taylor: An Interview with Actor Joe Unger allows Snake’s doomed buddy from the excised bank robbery opening to talk about his time on the film. Naturally, he enjoys the cult-appeal that his lost sequence has attained, but he is also philosophical enough to understand that such deletions occur when making films. This is, of course, augmented by having the full Deleted Scene: The Original Opening Bank Robbery Sequence available to view separately, with an optional commentary from Carpenter. It is a great sequence that shows a visual contrast to the darkness of the rest of the movie. I understand why it was cut out, but I disagree that revealing a more human side to Snake was a mistake. Watching his friend getting blasted by black-bellies actually endorses his sarcastic and cynical attitude to authority once he meets Bob Hauk.

    My Night on Set: An Interview with Filmmaker David DeCoteau recallsthe brief stint that Roger Corman’s former FX man had working for Carpenter because he was so conveniently close to the production.

    Return to Escape from New York Featurette is familiar from the older Special Edition, and remains terrific.

    Rounding out the selection, we have Theatrical Trailers, and Photo-galleries of the production and the marketing. There is a lot of imagery here – all awesome.

    All of this produces something of a fan’s dream. All the great older material, plus lots of new stuff. What’s not to love?

    Escape From New York Blu-ray Verdict

    Escape from New York: 2 Disc Collector’s Edition  Escape From New York Blu-ray Verdict
    “You always were smart, Harold ...”

    Dark and gritty, John Carpenter's Escape From New York holds a cherished place in the hearts of SF and action fans. The filmmaker had clearly grown in confidence and technical ability, and his audacious premise is still a bit of jaw-dropper. What is miraculous, though, is how he managed to marshal such an eclectic cast, a strenuous shoot, and a controversial plot into a movie that was a semi-camp comic-book extravaganza. That he created an iconic character out of Snake Plissken, as well, is the icing on a fabulously subversive cake. The film is massively flawed and innately daft, but it barrels along through its own warped and wacky world with such verve and adrenalised charm that it is impossible not to fall for its skewed escapist fantasy.

    Typically un-wowing at the Box Office, Carpenter's ultra right-wing future is marvellously depicted and his solution to an outrageous scenario is a smirk-inducing delight. This was a director on the cusp of bolting down and cementing his talents, and The Thing, which followed, proved that. But, as I've said far too many times now, with money and studio-backing comes great compromis and when his flair for independent creativity was stunted, so too was Carpenter's once so rich and rewarding confidence. Escape From New York is one of the best and most accomplished productions from his Golden Period, and it remains a mini-masterpiece today.

    John Carpenter created an iconic character out of Snake Plissken

    Scream/Shout's US release of the film on Blu-ray provides difficult source material with an altogether brighter outlook that may please some people, but will certainly aggravate others. Personally, I don’t mind it too much. I prefer the older, darker MGM transfer because that, to me, seems the most accurate and unmolested, but this does not upset me anywhere near as much as it does a host of detractors. The 5.1 lossless audio is the same as MGM’s, and it sounds great, with a pumping presentation Carpenter’s classic score really enjoying the fuller dynamics available.

    To be honest, if you are a true fan, and can play Region A discs, then you simply have to have this edition, if only for the generous assortment of supplemental goodies on offer. Naturally, it would be better again if we could have Carpenter and Russell providing new interviews but, then again, they’ve pretty much said everything already.

    An awesome movie gets a so-so transfer, but wins the day with its overall package.

    You can buy Escape From New York on Blu-ray here

    Suggested retail price when reviewed: £19.00

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