There are few creative minds in cinema as influential as John Carpenter, who, it has to be said, is almost entirely responsible for the popular style of filmmaking in the 1980s. His synth scores and pulpy cult films like Big Trouble in Little China and They Live would come to reflect an alternative filmmaking attitude, set within the boundaries of the mainstream.
Shortly before the 1980s, it was Carpenter’s 1978 horror Halloween that would truly mould the coming decade, sparking the slasher sub-genre that would permeate through the industry and inspire films such as Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. John Carpenter never quite intended it to be such an influential picture, however, especially one that would be so critically revered to this day. In an interview with Chic Magazine in 1979, Carpenter outlined Halloween as “true crass exploitation. I decided to make a film I would love to have seen as a kid, full of cheap tricks like a haunted house at a fair where you walk down the corridor and things jump out at you”.
Three years later, John Carpenter would consolidate the identity of popular Western filmmaking with the bombastic Escape from New York starring Kurt Russell and Lee Van Cleef, establishing the name of action hero caricature Snake Plissken into the history of film. A commercial success, Snake would return fifteen years later to Escape from L.A alongside Steve Buscemi, Bruce Campbell, and Pam Grier, continuing the Snake’s bizarre story with even more bells, whistles and absurdity than the predecessor.
Snake Plissken, played by Kurt Russell, is a maverick and convicted bank robber, who in the first film, is hired by the US government to save the president from a giant maximum security prison that makes up much of New York. Just like many sequels of the 20th century, the second film is a recycled version of the first, where now Snake is hired once again to recover a doomsday device from L.A, an island of convicts and undesirables.
Totally absurd, much of Escape from L.A is a trip through the bleak, crime-ridden streets of the city, where Snake engages in wild brawls and gunfights with eccentric characters. His adventure through the deranged city is as much a satire of the 1980s genre as well as a manic, surreal quest that elicits a camp aesthetic that has since become ubiquitous with the filmmaker. Despite receiving far less favourable reviews from critics, and considerably less money at the box office than its predecessor, Escape from L.A remains John Carpenter’s favourite of the two films. Speaking to Erik Bauer from Creative Screenwriting, the director explained: “Escape from L.A. is better than the first movie. Ten times better. It’s got more to it. It’s more mature”.
Continuing, Carpenter notes, “I think some people didn’t like it because they felt it was a remake, not a sequel… I suppose it’s the old question of whether you like Rio Bravo or El Dorado better? They’re essentially the same movie. They both had their strengths and weaknesses. I don’t know–you never know why a movie’s going to make it or not”. Celebrating its 25 year anniversary, Escape from L.A perfectly fuses the frenetic insanity of 1980s action filmmaking and the excessive attitudes of the 1990s, utilising cinema’s newfound technological toys.
With a video game sequel titled ‘Escape from Earth’ unfortunately never released, we hope that one day Snake Plissken is given the send-off that he deserves. After all, the absurdity of his existence and the satire of both his films seem ripe for a revival.