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Why Escape from New York Worked So Well Without Backstory

Escape from New York

Escape from New York is one of John Carpenter’s best films. After the double horror hits of Halloween and The Fog, Escape from New York returned Carpenter to the sci-fi and action roots he’d established with Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13. In fact, all Escape does is really build upon the foundations established by Assault. It’s a contained thriller about characters stuck inside a makeshift war zone fighting off attackers with no real rhyme or reason for doing what they’re doing. In Assault, it’s because the precinct is the target of a nihilistic gang and is harboring a witness to one of their crimes. In Escape it is of course because the entire island of Manhattan has been turned into a prison.

The film has a lot to offer. Like most early Carpenter features, it’s gorgeously shot. It boasts one of his best scores. Kurt Russell kills it, establishing Snake Plissken as arguably the most popular and most beloved of the characters he played in Carpenter films. Considering that those movies also include Big Trouble in Little China and The Thing, that says a lot.

News broke recently that the remake of Escape from New York was quickly picking up steam. This was taken with a grain of salt because the proposed remake has been in development hell for years. Much like The Crow, several actors have become officially attached to the part, only to leave when the project shows no forward momentum.

escape-ny-snake

This time seemed to be different, as there seemed to be clear plot details in place. For one thing, this project at least appears to have a clear story direction now, even a script, which is more than all other attempts at a remake before it. But with this new direction also came the news that this would not be a remake, but a prequel. Usually, even with the lousy track record of prequels, that’s something I’d be excited for. I love stories that can be their own thing, that can do something different while also being firmly planted in the continuity and the same world as what has come before.

With Escape from New York, however, I really don’t think a prequel is the right approach. Yes, it can be argued that there are so many clues, so many hints to Snake’s backstory in the original film. That we get little teases, but we know next to nothing about the guy.

But I think that’s exactly what makes Snake Plissken work. The more we don’t know, the more interesting he is. Almost all of Carpenter’s action leads, especially with Russell, are based on old Western character types. Plissken is Carpenter’s Man With No Name. The guy is a complete mystery. We get just enough character hints to try and piece things together. We know that he was a soldier, that at one point he lost an eye, and that people love to think he’s dead.

escape from new yorkThose are really the only details about Snake Plissken that matter, because everything else comes through in his personality, in Russell’s performance. There’s something Carpenter was great at not doing and that modern cinema—especially action blockbusters—could take a few notes from: His films weren’t overstuffed with backstory.

Halloween hinges on knowing three things: Michael Myers killed his sister, was put in an institution afterward, now he’s out. As much as Loomis loves to talk, those are all details that are shown, not told. With Escape from New York, Snake wisely remains a mystery. We don’t need to know virtually anything about him to follow the plot and the things we do learn only make him more intriguing. The audience isn’t lost not knowing who this guy is and where he came from. From the restrained script and the performance, we still learn what he likes (surviving) and what he doesn’t like (most other things) and we don’t need to know much more about him.

It’s possible that a prequel wouldn’t ruin the character, wouldn’t be the worst thing. Maybe they find a really engaging way to crack the code, but I do think that even if it’s good, it would wind up cheapening the original film. I almost think that in this situation, a remake would be the better option. If you’re going to give Snake Plissken a fully developed backstory, then it might be better to just start with a clean slate because anything—good or bad—is now going to affect the way the people who see the remake will view the first film.

Escape from New YorkThat’s a lot of responsibility to take on as a filmmaker. I hope they’ve considered the weight of that, because in an age where most films are made by committee, it’s easy to see why they wouldn’t.

I’m not opposed to a return of Snake Plissken by any means. I just want to know that they have a clear plan because the ideas that are being proposed sound almost polar opposite to those which made Carpenter’s film work. I’m not saying that I don’t ever want to see Plissken on the big screen again, I’m just saying that I heard he was dead.

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Written by Nat Brehmer
In addition to contributing to Wicked Horror, Nathaniel Brehmer has also written for Horror Bid, HorrorDomain, Dread Central, Bloody Disgusting, We Got This Covered, and more. He has also had fiction published in Sanitarium Magazine, Hello Horror, Bloodbond and more. He currently lives in Florida with his wife and his black cat, Poe.
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