The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Circus of Horrors (dir by Sidney Hayers)


About 15 minutes into this film from 1960, Donald Pleasence gets mauled to death by a dancing beer.

Pleasence plays a character named Vanet.  Vanet is an alcoholic who, circa 1947, owns a circus.  He also has a daughter named Nicole (Yvonne Monlaur), whose face is scarred as a result of wounds that she received during Germany’s bombing of London.  When a plastic surgeon named Dr. Bernard Schuler (Anton Diffring) operates on Nicole and manages to “take away” her scars, Vanet is so thankful that he signs over ownership of the circus to Schuler.  Vanet then promptly tries to dance with a bear and gets killed.  Poor Vanet.

It turns out that Schuler is a brilliant plastic surgeon but he’s also kind of insane.  He and his associates (played by Kenneth Griffith and Jane Hylton) are on the run from the police.  However, even with the cops after him, Schuler has to experiment.  His plan is to use the circus as a front.  He’ll recruit scarred criminals, operate on them, and then require them to perform in his circus.  That plan doesn’t really make much sense but I guess a fugitive plastic surgeon has to do what he has to do.  Still, it’s hard not to be amused by Schuler describing his plans for the circus as if he’s just come up with the most brilliant plan ever as opposed to just a bunch of gobbledygook.  At no point do any of his assistants point out that his plan makes no sense so I guess he must pay well.

Anyway. the film jumps forward twelve years and what do you know!  The plan worked!  The circus is a hit!  People from all over Europe come to Schuler’s circus.  The circus is famous for featuring the most beautiful women in the world.  The circus is also famous for several mysterious and fatal accidents.  INTERPOL thinks that it’s possible that Schuler is intentionally killing his performers for the free publicity.  When Schuler makes plans to take his circus back to the UK, Scotland Yard is given a call and a heads up about what Schuler’s been doing.  A nosy reporter investigates while the murders continue unabated….

Circus of Horrors is odd.  It’s as if someone reached into a bag and pulled out random cards that read, “Circus,” “plastic surgery,” and “Word War II subtext” and then did what they had to do to construct a plot out of those three elements.  Of those three elements, the World War II subtext is probably the most interesting.  The majority of Schuler’s patients were scarred as a result of the war (which Europe was still recovering from in 1960) and Schuler is played by German actor Anton Diffring.  It’s easy to see Schuler, with his German name and his love for medical experimentation, as a stand-in for Nazi fugitives like Josef Mengele and Klaus Barbie. Schuler and his circus move across Europe and, in the end, it’s going to take Europeans working together to stop him.  The shadow of World War II hangs over every scene.

Beyond that, Circus of Horrors is a flamboyant mix of horror and soap opera.  The colors are bright, the blood flows freely, and the melodrama is definitely embraced.  It’s like a Hammer film, just without a Hammer cast.  Unfortunately, Anton Diffring is a bit bland in the role of Schuler.  One could imagine an actor like Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing working wonders with the role but Diffring often seems to be bored with the whole thing.  As well, the film sometimes get bogged down with footage of the circus performers doing their thing.  For instance, do we need to see the clowns and the acrobats when what we really want to see is the murderous knife thrower?  Circus of Horrors has its moments but, while watching it, it’s hard not to think about how much more fun it would have been if it had been a Hammer film.

International Horror Film Review: Paganini Horror (dir by Luigi Cozzi)


Yes, this 1989 Italian horror film does deal with the legend that violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini sold his soul the devil in return for his talent.

And yes, it does feature Paganini coming back to life and murdering people.

Listen, there’s a lot of critical things that you can say about this film but you have to love the idea of a slasher film that feature an actual historical figure coming to life and doing the slashing.  I mean, this is no ordinary, masked murderer!  No, this is a murderer whose compositions are still played in concert to this day!

Paganini Horror was written by Daria Nicolodi (who also co-starred) and directed by Luigi Cozzi, two Italian horror figures who — fairly or not — will always be associated with Dario Argento.  Nicolodi co-starred in several of Argento’s films and was his longtime girlfriend.  She’s the mother of Asia Argento.  She also provided Dario Argento with the story that would eventually become Suspiria.  Argento and Nicolodi had a notably bad breakup and, though they continue to occasionally work together, it’s rare that you ever read an interview with Nicolodi where she doesn’t have something negative to say about Argento and his later films.  Luigi Cozzi, meanwhile, is often considered to be a protégé of Argento’s.  Argento produced several of Cozzi’s films and Cozzi has directed multiple documentaries about Argento.  For several years, Cozzi was also the co-owner and manager of Argento’s movie memorabilia store, Profondo Rosso.

Considering Nicolodi and Cozzi’s well-documented relationships with him, it’s interesting that Paganini Horror features a character who appears to be, at the very least, slightly based on Dario Argento.  Mark Singer (Pietro Genuardi) is an arrogant director of bloody horror films who is hired to shoot a music video for a band.  The band, which is in desperate need of a hit, is recording a song that is based on a never before recorded (or heard) composition by Paganini himself.  The band’s drummer, Daniel (Pascal Persiano), purchased the composition from a mysterious man named Mr. Pickett (Donald Pleasence).  We later see Mr. Pickett standing on the roof of a church, grinning maniacally as he throws away Daniel’s money.  Hmmm….I wonder what that’s all about.

Though Pleasence isn’t in much of the film, his performance is definitely one of the highlights of Paganini Horror.  That he’s playing an evil character is obvious from the minute he shows but Pleasence seems to be having so much fun with the role that you can’t help but like him.  There’s something especially charming about the way he smiles while throwing away that money.

The other highpoint of the movie is Paganini himself.  As played by Roberto Giannini, Paganani wanders about wearing a mask and a black coat.  He carries a violin that has a very sharp blade sticking out of the bottom of it.  Yes, it’s totally ludicrous but that’s kind of the point of it.  Paganini was known for two things: 1) being a great musician and 2) the rumors that he sold his soul to the devil.  Paganini Horror may emphasize the rumors about the devil but it doesn’t let us forget that Paganini was a damn good violinist….

Anyway, Paganini Horror is a frequently incoherent film, where characters don’t act logically and the rules of Paganini’s curse seems to change from scene to scene.  Once you get passed the novelty of Paganini being the murderer, this really is a standard slasher film, albeit one that’s a bit more graphic than its American and British counterparts.  That said, I don’t think that it’s quite the disaster that Luigi Cozzi has described it as being.  (Cozzi has consistently cited it as one of his least favorite of the films that he’s directed.)  Donald Pleasence appears to have had a blast playing his role and there are a few memorable shots of Venice.  (Of course, it’s pretty much impossible to find an unmemorable shot of Venice.)  The scenes of the band pretending to perform are also enjoyably silly.  Paganini Horror may not be great but it’s certainly not boring.  If you appreciate Italian horror, you get it.

I watched Paganini Horror on Tubi.  It was an enjoyable 90 minutes.  I have no regrets.

 

Horror Film Review: Wake In Fright (dir by Ted Kotcheff)


To be honest, it’s probably open for debate whether or not Wake In Fright is actually a horror film.

This 1971 Australian film, which tells the story of a school teacher who becomes stranded in a small town in the outback, doesn’t feature any ghosts or werewolves or vampires or zombies or anything else of a supernatural nature.  The school teacher meets a large number of people in town, the majority of whom are technically quite friendly.  They teach him how to gamble.  They take him on a hunt.  They give him shelter when he doesn’t have anywhere else to stay.  The word “mate” is tossed around so frequently that it soon becomes clear that every man — significantly, there’s only two women in the film and one of them only appears in the teacher’s memories — in the outback is considered to be one.

The people of town of Bundanyabba — or “The Yabba,” as they call it — are also very generous with their beer.  If they meet you for the first time, they expect you to have a beer with them.  If they see you for the first, second, or third time during the day, they expect you to have a beer with them.  They wake up in the morning drinking and they go to bed drunk.  When John Grant (Gary Bond) first shows up in the Yabba, he can barely handle two beers.  By the end of his stay, he’s drinking nonstop.

However, John also discovers that it dangerous to turn down those offers of beer.  Turn down a beer and you might get a strange look, if you’re lucky.  More likely, you’ll get yelled at.  Turn down a beer from the wrong person and you might even get attacked.  Everyone in the Yabba is friendly but everyone is also always on the verge of throwing the first punch.  Refuse a beer and you might be in trouble.  Refuse to enthusiastically take part in a savage and sadistic kangaroo hunt and your mates might starts to talk.  When John first arrives, he’s a bit amused by the town and what he sees as being its backwards ways.  It’s obvious that he looks down on the people around him and one can sense that they realize that.  Perhaps that’s why everyone around him seems to take such joy in watching John slowly lose his identity.

That’s horror at the heart of Wake in Fright.  It’s not the horror of the paranormal.  Instead, it’s the horror of the isolation.  There’s no way to fight the isolation and the madness it brings.  Your only choice is to either surrender to it or be destroyed by it.  The longer John spends in the Yabba, the more the bleakness of the outback gets to him.  It’s a world dominated by brutal men, none of whom are particularly impressed when they find out that John’s teacher and that he has a suitcase full of books.  They view John as being soft and, in order to prove that he’s not, John starts to sacrifice his identity.  He starts to become just as much of a brute as Dick (Jack Thompson) and Joe (Peter Whittle).

Having lost all of his money, John eventually ends up staying with Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence).  Doc really is a doctor.  He’s also, as he cheerfully explains, an alcoholic.  When John says that he’s going to find some place else to stay, Doc makes it clear that John isn’t leaving.  The film makes good use of Pleasence’s eccentric screen presence.  Is Doc simply being friendly or does Doc have more sinister motives fueling his insistence that John stay with him?  When Doc gives John advice, is it to help him or is it to further degrade John?  Like John, Doc is an educated man and obviously smarter than those around him.  And yet, Doc seems very happy in the mad world of the Yabba, drinking, hunting, and gambling.  Is John destined to become Doc or can he escape?

John discovers that leaving the Yabba isn’t easy.  Every time he tries, he ends up back in town.  All roads seems to lead back to the Yabba.  In retrospect, perhaps the most frightening thing about Wake In Fright is that no one seems to be surprised by the sight of the increasingly disheveled and unstable John.  Even when he stumbles through town while carrying a rifle, no one gives him a second look.  He’s just another part of the scenery.

No, Wake In Fright is not a traditional horror film but it’s a horror film, nonetheless.  It’s about the horror of not only losing your identity but perhaps not being quite sure what your identity was in the first place.  As played by Gary Bond, John is an often frustrating character but you never stop caring about him.  It’s frightening to watch him lose himself, even while you wonder if he ever knew who he truly was in the first place.  Bond was a stage actor who only appeared in three films.  Wake in Fright was his final film and one of the huge reasons why it’s so effective is because Gary Bond is not an actor who we recognize from other films.  We don’t seen an actor when we look at him.  Instead, we see a person who, for the first time, is discovering just how unsettling life on the fringes can be.

It’s a powerful film and a controversial one.  When John is taken on a kangaroo hunt, footage from an actual hunt was included in the film and it’s a horrific sequence, one that’s made all the more disturbing by the fact that the hunters refuse to acknowledge just how horrific and unjust it all is.  Reportedly, when Wake In Fright was first released, someone in a Sydney theater stood up and shouted at the screen, “This is not us!”  Actor Jack Thompson, who made his film debut in Wake In Fright, was in the audience and shouted back, “It is us, mate!  Sit down!”

For a long time, it was impossible to see Wake In Fright.  Only one known print was known to exist and it was a badly damaged one.  Fortunately, in 2002, another print was found in Pittsburgh and Wake In Fright was rereleased and rediscovered.  When it was first released in 1971, the film’s violence and downbeat atmosphere were both controversial and it struggled at the Australian box office.  (Many Australians, like that theatergoer in Sydney, initially viewed the film as being a bit of a personal attack.)  Rereleased in 2003 and championed by Martin Scorsese, Wake In Fright was embraced by a new generation of critics, many of whom declared it to be one of the greatest and most important Australian films ever made.

Wake In Fright is a powerful and unsettling film, a portrait of a place that seems to be fueled by toxic masculinity and self-destruction.  It’s a disturbing film and not easy to watch.  But if you do watch it, it will stick with you and leave you thinking long after the final credits roll.

Horror Scenes That I Love: Donald Pleasence Meets Christopher Lee in Death Line


In the 1972 British horror film Death Line (released in the U.S. as Raw Meat), Donald Pleasence gives one of his best performances as Inspector Calhoun, an alcoholic, somewhat fascistic detective who discovers evidence of cannibals in the London Underground.  Since the British government would rather this information not be revealed, a mysterious man played by Christopher Lee is sent to discuss things with Calhoun.

This scene features a meeting between two icons of horror so, of course, I love it.  Pleasence is wonderfully obsessive and Lee is wonderfully menacing.  Since the film is as much about the class struggle as it is about cannibalism, it’s interesting to see the automatic conflict between the working class Calhoun and the definitely upper class character played by Christopher Lee.

4 Shots From 4 Donald Pleasence Films: Wake In Fright, The Mutations, Halloween, Phenomena


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

Today, we celebrate the life and career Donald Pleasence!  One of the greatest of all the horror icons, Pleasence was born 101 years ago today and that means that it’s time for….

4 Shots From 4 Films

Wake in Fright (1971, dir by Ted Kotcheff)

The Mutations (1974, dir by Jack Cardiff)

Halloween (1978, dir by John Carpenter)

Phenomena (1985, dir by Dario Argento)

Horror Scenes I Love: Dr. Loomis at Michael’s Board Review From Halloween


To go along with my review of Curtis Richards’s Halloween novelization, today’s scene that I love comes from the film Halloween …. kinda.  It wasn’t included in the theatrical release but, instead, it was later added when Halloween made it’s network television premiere.

Now, I’ve actually heard two stories about this scene.  One story is that it was shot during the filming of the original Halloween but that it was cut out of the theatrical release.  When Halloween premiered on television, the network needed some footage to pad out the running time so this scene was re-inserted.

The other version is that the scene was specifically filmed for the television version of the film.  According to this version, the scene was in an early version of the script but Carpenter didn’t film it until after Halloween had already had its theatrical release and was set to make it’s television debut.

(Personally, to me, the second version sounds more plausible.)

Regardless of when this scene was filmed, I like it quite a bit.  In this scene, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) attempts to get his colleagues to understand just how dangerous Michael Myers actually is.  This, of course, was a running theme for the character of Dr. Loomis and it has always amazed me that no one was ever willing to listen to him.  Loomis spent the last 30 years of his life telling people that Michael was an unstoppable killer.  Every single time, he was proven correct.  And yet no one ever listened to him!

This scene gives us a chance to see Dr. Loomis in a professional setting, as well as giving us a glance of an adolescent Michael at Smith’s Grove Sanitarium.  “You’ve fooled them, Michael …. but not me.”

As someone who has seen all of the Halloween films multiple times, I have to say that Donald Pleasence’s performance as Dr. Loomis, especially in the first 2 films, has always been underrated.  Pleasence gave a convincing portrait of a man who had spent the last ten years of his life dealing with evil on a daily basis.  Who could blame him for being a bit fanatical?  Wouldn’t you be if you had spent that much time staring into Michael’s soulless eyes?

Film Review: The Greatest Story Ever Told (dir by George Stevens)


The 1965 biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told, tells the story of the life of Jesus, from the Nativity to the Ascension.  It’s probably the most complete telling of the story that you’ll ever find.  It’s hard to think of a single details that’s left out and, as a result, the film has a four hour running time.  Whether you’re a believer or not, that’s a really long time to watch a reverent film that doesn’t even feature the campy excesses of something like The Ten Commandments.

(There’s actually several different version of The Greatest Story Ever Told floating around.  There’s a version that’s a little over two hours.  There’s a version that’s close to four hours.  Reportedly, the uncut version of the film ran for four hour and 20 minutes.)

Max von Sydow plays Jesus.  On the one hand, that seems like that should work because Max von Sydow was a great actor who gave off an otherworldly air.  On the other hand, it totally doesn’t work because von Sydow gives an oddly detached performance.  The Greatest Story Ever Told was von Sydow’s first American film and, at no point, does he seem particularly happy about being involved with it.  von Sydow is a very cerebral and rather reserved Jesus, one who makes his points without a hint of passion or charisma.  When he’s being friendly, he offers up a half-smile.  When he has to rebuke his disciples for their doubt, he sounds more annoyed than anything else.  He’s Jesus if Jesus was a community college philosophy professor.

The rest of the huge cast is populated with familiar faces.  The Greatest Story Ever Told takes the all-star approach to heart and, as a result, even the minor roles are played by actors who will be familiar to anyone who has spent more than a few hours watching TCM.  Many of them are on screen for only a few seconds, which makes their presence all the more distracting.  Sidney Poitier shows up as Simon of Cyrene.  Pat Boone is an angel.  Roddy McDowall is Matthew and Sal Mineo is Uriah and John Wayne shows up as a centurion and delivers his one line in his trademark drawl.

A few of the actors do manage to stand out and make a good impression.  Telly Savalas is a credible Pilate, playing him as being neither smug nor overly sympathetic but instead as a bureaucrat who can’t understand why he’s being forced to deal with all of this.  Charlton Heston has just the right intensity for the role of John the Baptist while Jose Ferrer is properly sleazy as Herod.  In the role Judas, David McCallum looks at the world through suspicious eyes and does little to disguise his irritation with the rest of the world.  The Greatest Story Ever Told does not sentimentalize Judas or his role in Jesus’s arrest.  For the most part, he’s just a jerk.  Finally, it’s not exactly surprising when Donald Pleasence shows up as Satan but Pleasence still gives a properly evil performance, giving all of his lines a mocking and often sarcastic bite.

The Greatest Story Ever Told was directed by George Stevens, a legitimately great director who struggles to maintain any sort of narrative momentum in this film.  Watching The Greatest Story Ever Told, it occurred to me that the best biblical films are the ones like Ben-Hur and The Robe, which both largely keep Jesus off-screen and instead focus on how his life and teachings and the reports of his resurrection effected other people.  Stevens approaches the film’s subject with such reverence that the film becomes boring and that’s something that should never happen when you’re making a film set in Judea during the Roman era.

I do have to admit that, despite all of my criticism of the film, I do actually kind of like The Greatest Story Ever Told.  It’s just such a big production that it’s hard not to be a little awed by it all.  That huge cast may be distracting but it’s still a little bit fun to sit there and go, “There’s Shelley Winters!  There’s John Wayne!  There’s Robert Blake and Martin Landau!”  That said, as far as biblical films are concerned, you’re still better off sticking with Jesus Christ Superstar.

18 Days of Paranoia #18: Nineteen Eighty-Four (dir by Rudolph Cartier)


Well, here we are at the end of both March and the 18 days of paranoia.  We started things off with a review of The Flight That Disappeared and now, we end things with a look at the 1954 BBC production of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

“Orewllian” is a term that gets tossed around a lot nowadays, largely by people who the real George Orwell probably would have viewed rather dismissively.  Ever since the election of Donald Trump, for instance, it’s become rather common for certain people of twitter to say that “Orwell was right” or that we’re living in an “Orwellian nightmare.”  I remember after Trump’s press secretary blatantly lied about the size of the crowd at the inauguration, there was even a commercial that featured Zachary Quinto giving a hilariously overwrought reading of the final passage of George Orwell’s 1984.  “He …. LOVED …. BIG …. BROTHER!” Quinto declared while staring grimly at the camera.

Interestingly enough, many of the same people who complain about Trump’s lies being Orwellian never used the term during the previous 8 years, when we were being constantly told that a permanent recession was actually a sign of a strong economy and that if people liked their doctor, they could keep them.  The fact of the matter is that, for a lot of people, “Orwellian” is just a term that they use whenever a politician from the other side does something that they dislike.  It makes you wonder how many of them have actually read 1984 because, if they had, they would surely know that — if we truly were living in the world depicted in Orwell’s novel — no one would be allowed to acknowledge it and, in fact, Orwell and his books would have vanished down the memory hole.  Just the act of saying that we’re living in 1984 without getting sent to a reeducation camp is proof that we’re not (or, at least, we’re not just yet).

That’s not to say that 1984 isn’t an important work of literature.  In fact, it’s probably one of the most important books ever written, which is why it does it such a disservice to glibly toss around the term Orwellian.  Even if we aren’t living in Orwell’s world right now, it’s probably easier than ever to imagine a scenario where we eventually could.  The Coronavirus pandemic, for example, is just the sort of thing that could lead to the people accepting the idea that the government is meant to be a Big Brother and that those who disagree deserve to be reported for the good of the people.  It’s easy to imagine a future where people believe that history started with the Coranavirus and that everything that happened before the pandemic was just a hazy rumor, like Europe before the Renaissance.  As such, even if the term Orwellian is overused, 1984 is still a book that needs to be read and understood.

There have been several film adaptations of 1984, some of which are better than others.  My personal favorite is the 1985 film, which was directed by Michael Radford and which starred John Hurt and Richard Burton.  Running a close second, however, would be the version that was made for the BBC in 1954.

This version sticks closely to Orwell’s novel, though it downplays the book’s sexual themes.  (This is not surprising considering that this version was made for 1950s television.)  Though it condensed Orwell’s story, it hits all of the important points.  Winston Smith (Peter Cushing) is a member of the Outer Party who works at the Ministry of Truth and who lives a rather drab existence in London, “the chief city of Airstrip One.”  He is a citizen of Oceania, which has always been at war with Eurasia.  Winston lives under a system of government called Ingsoc and every day, he spends two minutes hating a mysterious figure named Goldstein.  All around him are posters of Big Brother, watching him and judging.

On the outside, Winston is a loyal party man but on the inside, he has questions and doubts.  How can he not when he works for the Ministry of Truth?  His job is to change history to reflect whatever the current version of it may be.  Some of his co-workers, like Symes (Donald Pleaseance), are openly cynical about what they do.  Others, like O’Brien (an imposing Andre Morell), seem as if they might be sympathetic to Winston’s doubts but Winston cannot be sure.  Meanwhile, Winston has found himself obsessed with Julia (Yvonne Mitchell), who is a member of the Anti-Sex League but who might have doubts of her own.  (Then again, she could also be a member of the Thought Police.)

When Winston is finally arrested for being a thoughtcriminal, it leads to a harrowing interrogation where he learns that truth doesn’t matter, the numbers add up to whatever the party says that they add up to, and that no one is strong enough to survive the ordeal of Room 101.

The BBC adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four was, for the most part, a live performance with a few filmed scenes inserted into the action.  Still, the fact that the majority of the actors were delivering their lines lives brings a certain immediacy to the film.  Everyone seem nervous and edgy.  In real life, that could have been due to the fear that they would miss a line but it also feels appropriate for people who spend every day of their life being watched and judged by Big Brother.  The entire production does an excellent job of creating a world where every minute is suffused in an atmosphere of dread and fear.  From the minute we first see him, Winston seems to know that he’s doomed.  The fact that Big Brother would rather torture and brainwash him rather than just make him disappear just makes things worse.

The production is full of actors — like Cushing, Morrell, and Pleasence — who would go on to become leading figures in the British horror industry and all of them do an excellent job bringing Orwell’s horror to life.  Peter Cushing, with his mix of intelligent features and neurotic screen presence, makes for the perfect Winston Smith and Andre Morrell is just as perfectly cast as the fearsome O’Brien.  The scene in which Winston is forced to confront Room 101 is still a harrowing one and this film perfectly nails the novel’s famous ending, doing so in a low-key manner that’s far more effective than the overwrought approach that other adaptations have brought to the final scene.

Nineteen Eighty-Four can currently be viewed on Prime.  The print is a bit grainy but that only adds to the film’s power.  It comes to us like a hazy vision of the future.

Other Entries In The 18 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau
  3. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
  4. The Falcon and the Snowman
  5. New World Order
  6. Scandal Sheet
  7. Cuban Rebel Girls
  8. The French Connection II
  9. Blunt: The Fourth Man 
  10. The Quiller Memorandum
  11. Betrayed
  12. Best Seller
  13. They Call Me Mister Tibbs
  14. The Organization
  15. Marie: A True Story
  16. Lost Girls
  17. Walk East On Beacon!

Escape From New York (dir. by John Carpenter)


 

escape-from-new-york-movie-poster-1981-1020189511Before you start, note that Escape From New York was recently showcased in Jeff’s 4 Shots from 4 Films post to celebrate Kurt Russell’s birthday. For another take on the film, check out Jeff’s review. Please check that out, and then double back here, if you want. 

When I was little, my Aunt would sometimes take my older brother and I with her into Manhattan. In a little movie theatre near 82nd Street, she’d get us a set of tickets for a film, help us get seated with snacks and then either stay for the movie or leave to perform housekeeping duties for someone nearby if she had work and we weren’t allowed to hang out on site. John Carpenter’s Escape From New York wasn’t a film she stayed for (she loved Raiders of the Lost Ark), but it was okay. I was introduced to Snake Plissken, who ended up being cooler than Han Solo to my six year old eyes. Instead of being the hero, here was a criminal being asked to a mission. It showed me that even the bad guys could be heroes, now and then (or better yet, not every hero is cookie cutter clean). The film became an instant favorite for me. As I also do with Jaws and The Fog, I try not to let a year go by without watching Escape From New York at least once. It was my first Carpenter film.

The cultural impact of Escape From New York is pretty grand, in my opinion. It had a major influence on Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear video games and also spawned a few comics with Plissken, complete with Jack Burton crossovers with Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China.

Carpenter brought in most of the same crew he worked with in his previous movies. The film was the third collaboration between Carpenter and Debra Hill, who previously worked with him in 1978’s Halloween and 1980’s The Fog. Though Hill didn’t write this one, she was still the producer, along with Larry Franco. There’s also a bit of speculation on whether Hill performed the opening vocals describing New York or Jamie Lee Curtis handled that. Cinematographer Dean Cundey (who worked on most of Carpenter’s early films) returned to help give the movie it’s gritty look, which is helpful considering how much of it takes place either at night or in darkened rooms. Another interesting part of the production is James Cameron, who was the Director of Photography when it came to the effects and matte work. One of the best effects shots in the film has Plissken gliding over Manhattan, which was designed by Effects member John C. Wash. The shot on his plane’s dashboard of the city was made from miniature mock up with reflective tape that made it appear as if it were digital, which was pretty cool given that they weren’t on an Industrial Light and Magic budget. There’s a fantastic article on We Are The Mutants and on the Escape From New York/LA Fan Page that focus on Wash’s technical contributions to the film.

For Carpenter’s career, Escape From New York marked the start of a great working relationship with Alan Howarth. Howarth, who also worked on the sound in the film, assisted Carpenter with the soundtrack. I’ve always felt this brought a new level to Carpenter’s music overall. You can easily hear the difference when Howarth was involved. Where Carpenter excelled at general synth sound, Howarth’s touch added some bass and depth. Together, they’d work on Christine, Big Trouble in Little China, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Prince of Darkness and They Live together. On his own, Howarth was also responsible for both Halloween 2, 4 and 5.

For the writing, Carpenter worked with Nick Castle, who played Michael Myers for him in the original Halloween. Escape From New York’s story is simple. In 1988, the crime rate for the United States rises 400 percent. As a result, someone had the notion to turn Manhattan into a prison for an entire country, setting up walls around the borough and mines in the waterways. When Airforce One crashes in the borough nearly a decade later, the recently arrested war hero / fugitive Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is given a mission. Go in, rescue the President and/or the tape he’s carrying in 22 hours, and Plissken receives a pardon for all his crimes. To ensure that he follows through, he’s injected with nano-explosives that will kill him when the deadline hits. What seems like a simple mission becomes a little complicated when Snake discovers the President was captured by The Duke of New York, played by Issac Hayes (I’m Gonna Git You Sucka). Given that I’ve commuted to Manhattan more times than I can count, the film holds a special place in my heart.  The concept of the entire borough being a prison was mind blowing as a kid. The concept still holds up for me as an adult.

For a film about New York, there were only two days of filming actually spent on location there, according to Carpenter’s commentary. Most of that was used for the opening shot at the Statue of Liberty. The bulk of the film was made in Los Angeles, Atlanta and St. Louis. At the time, there was a major fire in St. Louis. The damage made for a great backdrop for both the crash site and the city at night. The film does take some liberties with locations, though. For example, as far as I know, we don’t have a 69th Street Bridge in Manhattan, but as a kid, it didn’t matter much. From an action standpoint, it might not feel as intense as other films. Even when compared to other films in 1981 – like Raiders of the Lost Ark (released a month earlier) – Escape From New York doesn’t have a whole lot, though I still enjoy what it does provide.

escape_from_new_york

Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) has 22 hours to save the President in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York.

Casting seemed to come easy for the film. Hill, Castle and Carpenter reached out to some friends.  Kurt Russell and Carpenter worked together on Elvis, that was easy enough. Russell’s work with Carpenter would continue on in The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China and Escape from L.A.  From Halloween, Donald Pleasance was brought on to play the President, along with Charles Cyphers and Nancy Stephens as one pissed off flight attendant. From The Fog, we have Tom Atkins as Nick and Adrienne Barbeau as Maggie, who happened to be married to Carpenter at the time. According to Carpenter on the film’s commentary track, the sequence for Maggie’s exit needed to be reshot and extended. The scene with her body on the ground was filmed in Carpenter’s garage and added to the film.

Ernest Borgnine’s (The Poseidon Adventure) Cabbie was a favorite character of mine. Like most cabbies, he knew the city well. He even prepared for some of its challenges with molotov cocktails. Harry Dean Stanton (Alien, Christine) played Brain, the smartest individual in the room and the supplier for gas for the Duke. If you look close, you’ll also catch Assault on Precinct 13’s Frank Doubleday as Romero, which his crazy looking teeth. To round it all out, Lee Van Cleef (The Good, The Bad & The Ugly) plays Hauk, who puts Snake on his mission. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Carpenter film without a George ‘Buck’ Flower cameo. Buck was kind of Carpenter’s lucky charm in the way Dick Miller was for Joe Dante’s films. Good Ol’ Buck plays an inmate who sings Hail to the Chief.

Overall, Escape From New York is a classic Carpenter film that’s worth the watch. Whether you do so while wearing an eyepatch or not, that’s on you. We all have our preferences.

 

Escape From New York (1981, directed by John Carpenter)


What’s your favorite John Carpenter film?

Halloween is an obvious choice.  It’s probably the film that John Carpenter is best-known for.  The Thing and Assault on Precinct 13 are two other popular choices.  Libertarians and anarchists have embraced They Live as a sacred text.  In The Mouth of Madness is one of the few films to capture the feel of a classic H.P. Lovecraft story.  Christine is one of the best of the Stephen King adaptations.  My techphobic father recently purchased a Blu-ray player just so he could watch Big Trouble In Little China whenever he felt like it.

For me, though, my favorite will always be Escape From New York.

Everything about this movie, from the premise to the execution to the darkly funny ending, is pure brilliance.  For those who have been living off the grid for the last 40 years, Escape From New York takes place in what was, at the time of the film’s initial release, the near future.  Due to a 400% increase in crime, Manhattan has been turned into a floating prison.  A wall has been built around the island.  The bridges are covered in mines.  All of the residents are prisoners who have been sentenced to a life term and the Chock Full O’Nuts is now literally full of nuts.

There’s a new resident of New York City.  He’s the President (Donald Pleasence!) and he was supposed to soon deliver a classified cassette tape to the Soviets.  Instead, with the world on the verge of war, Air Force One has crashed in Manhattan and the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes!!) is holding him hostage.  Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef!!!) recruits notorious criminal Snake Plisskin (Kurt Russell!!!!) to sneak into the prison and retrieve the cassette and save the President, by any means necessary.  If Snake succeeds, he’ll get a pardon.  If Snake fails, he’ll die due to the microexplosives that have been injected into his system.

How unbelievably cool is Kurt Russell as Snake Plisskin?  Before fanfic was even known by that name, people were writing stories about Snake Plisskin’s past and how he lost his eye.  Delivering his lines in a Clint Eastwood-style rasp, Kurt Russell gives one of the best action hero performances of all time.  (Snake was the role that transformed Russell from being a clean-cut former Disney child star to being a cult film icon.)  Everything that Snake says is quotable and, even with tiny explosives circulating through his blood, Snake never loses his cool.  Sometimes, it doesn’t seem like Snake cares whether he lives or dies and that’s what makes Snake such a strong hero.  He’s wiling to take the risks that no one else would.  If he saves the President and the world, cool.  If he doesn’t, neither was probably worth saving anyways.  At the end of the film, Snake reveals that there are things that he does care about.  If you don’t appreciate the people who sacrificed their lives for you, don’t expect Snake to do you any favors.

Snake gets some help from a rogue’s gallery of familiar faces, all of whom have their own reasons for trying to save the President from the Duke.  Harry Dean Stanton is Brain while Adrienne Barbeau is Maggie.  Brain is the smartest man in Manhattan and Maggie’s good with a gun and it’s too bad that we never got a prequel about how they met.  My favorite of Escape from New York‘s supporting cast is Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie, who is the perfect New York taxi driver and whose taste in music plays off in an unexpectedly satisfying way.

Escape From New York is John Carpenter at his best, an exciting race against time full of memorable characters and thrilling action.  Whenever I go to New York and I cross over a bridge into Manhattan, I think about Snake, Cabbie, and the gang driving through a minefield.  Everyone who meets Snake says “I thought you were dead,” but we know better.  Snake Plisskin will never die and neither will my love for Escape From New York.