Escape from New York

escape-from-new-york-posterA lot of people love John Carpenter’s “Escape from New York” (1981). I’m not one of those people.

Half in the Bag, the movie review show on YouTube, features the two most important voices in film criticism today: Mike Stoklasa and Jay Bauman. Jay has said that if he had to choose only one movie to watch for the rest of his life, this would be it. That baffles me. Of all the movies filled with excitement, humor, pathos, mystery, wonder, spectacle… Why, Jay? Why “Escape from New York,” which lacks all those things?

He articulates his love for this film quite admirably, and it does have some good qualities. I guess if you’re only going to watch one movie for the rest of your life, it makes sense to pick one that has a rich atmosphere and a slow pace, giving you plenty of time to ponder little details and contemplate all of its dark corners.

Also, that was probably just an off-hand comment, not meant to be taken literally.

But anyway, that slow pace is my main problem. How is a movie called “ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK” not an action-packed adventure? Here, I agree with Mike, who does not share Jay’s reverence for the film.

“Escape” tries to trick you into thinking it’s an action movie. The title conjures a feeling of adventure. The poster (a work of art) depicts the main characters escaping from a mob, the head of the Statue of Liberty having crash-landed, somehow, in the middle of Fifth Avenue. The main character’s name is Snake and he wears a guerilla-like costume complete with eye patch.

But this movie is slow. It’s moody. The scenes that do contain action aren’t that spectacular and they’re undercut by Carpenter’s low, droning score.

About that score: it’s a fine piece of music. I’d very much enjoy it apart from this film. But as the score for an action movie, it’s totally wrong because its sluggish tempo underscores the film’s slowness. If you don’t have the budget to orchestrate great big action sequences, you can disguise that a bit by adding an exciting score to amplify the action.

The editing has the same effect. The multitude of long, unbroken wide shots exacerbates the film’s languid pace, whereas some more lively editing could have helped create the illusion of excitement. There’s a scene early on that illustrates how the editing and music drag this movie down and drain it of excitement. It’s this one, where Snake flies into Manhattan:

Considered on its own, it’s a fine sequence. The graphics in the cockpit are cool and the music has an ethereal quality. It’s “dreamlike,” as Jay puts it. That’s all very well, but is this really how you want to start your action movie?

Why did they make this sequence so dull? It’s almost as if they were trying to make a slow, dramatic take on an action movie premise. Almost.

The fact that this film doesn’t rise to the level of a typical action movie would be fine if the intention were to subvert the audience’s expectations, as some sort of commentary on the genre, the way “Scream” (1996) did for horror movies. Yet, even with the music and editing, I still don’t get the feeling that the final product was intentional. Throughout the film, you get the feeling that Carpenter tried to make a “cool” action movie, but just made a lot of sad choices along the way.

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The Fog

fog01I grew up in California’s San Joaquin Valley, where fog is a big deal. It would often be so thick that my elementary school would delay the start of the school day until it lifted. Walking to school in the fog would have meant certain death.

I remember the fog from the back of my mom’s station wagon, driving home from Grandma’s house after dark, the headlights illuminating nothing but a wall of mist. At any moment, a figure might materialize from the fog in the middle of the road. There would be no time to swerve. Or a truck traveling the opposite direction might appear, drifting into your lane, its driver fast asleep. The fog creates tension. You hold your breath until you reach home safely.

Not a bad atmosphere for a horror movie. Sadly, “The Fog” (1980) is one of John Carpenter’s lesser works (to be polite). It gets bogged down by a complex plot involving a curse, a hundred year anniversary, and a magic gold cross. It features a pack of ghosts who appear from thick air (See what I did there?) but always on the outside of a locked door, obliging them to break down the door like a bunch of dumb zombies. Why not wait for the fog to seep under the door and then appear inside the house? I guess they’re not that smart.

The opening scene is wonderful though. It shows a crusty old salt whispering a ghost story to a bunch of kids gathered around a campfire. Their mouths agape, they lean forward in anticipation. I wish the whole movie had that feeling, but it’s neither scary enough nor campy enough.

My mom and her best friend would disagree with me, though. They saw this movie in its original release when they would have been in their mid- late-20s. It clearly struck a nerve somewhere. They still bring it up in conversation, and I went to see it based on their well-known enthusiasm for it.

But for me, “The Fog” doesn’t capture that feeling of creeping terror that you get when you’re surrounded by real fog, when dangers of all kinds could be just a few feet away… if you could only see that far.


I saw “The Fog” at BAM on a wonderfully scratched up 35mm print as part of their John Carpenter retrospective, which continues through February 22nd.