Shake, Rattle And Roll (Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Aug 09/1996/US) By Michael H. Price


Of all the aftershocks of the Los Angeles earthquake of 1994, none seems noisier than the movie called John Carpenter's Escape From L.A.

The film, arriving today from Paramount Pictures, was conceived in the aftermath of the big 'quake as a what-if? fantasy - imagining that the city might one day be severed from the West Coast in a seismic upheaval, and then transformed into a Devil's Island for "undesirables."

This Escape is a sequel to one of John Carpenter's more successful early films, Escape From New York (1981). Kurt Russell, the original's star player, returns ferociously to the role of Snake Plisskin, the most relentless antihero since Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry Callahan.

Carpenter's contribution, as director and co-screenwriter, is to subvert the action-adventure genre with an infusion of political satire: What kind of America, he asks, would allow its greater cities to become prisons for its more rebellious citizens?

The release of Escape From L.A. finds Carpenter winding down a period of intense productivity in Hollywood. The veteran filmmaker says he owes himself a breather, and for once in a concentrated series of interviews Carpenter has no immediately forthcoming projects to tout.

When the Showtime cable-TV network was ready to trot out John Carpenter Presents Body Bags in 1993, Carpenter was ready to talk about In the Mouth of Madness. When New Line Cinema was about to break In the Mouth of Madness, Carpenter was in production on his Village of the Damned remake. When Universal had Village of the Damned ready to release, Carpenter was in a talkative mood about his sequel to Escape From New York.

"It has been an intense four years," Carpenter said last week. "I owe myself a vacation.

"But there's always something in the works," he added, dropping a hint or two about tapping his Southern background for a bit of horrific folklore.

Carpenter, 48, probably will never surrender his stake in the cinema of terror, which has at once stereotyped his talents and earned him a permanence that many another more "serious" filmmaker might envy.

Which is not to say Carpenter won't be provoking his audiences to laughter and the occasional burst of serious contemplation while scaring the pants off them.

"There's a risk of people taking my Escape pictures too seriously," Carpenter said. "But I figure we've got a whole new audience for Escape From L.A., people who don't have the baggage of having seen Escape From New York, and who may not bring to the new film any expectations of grim social commentary. Actually, I never thought the original Escape was all that grim.

"Sure, there's commentary to be found here, and we always shoot for the high mark of political satire, but we'll settle for just a cheap laugh or a little shock value if we have to, and at base these Escape pictures are all just pure entertainment with a little subversive political stuff thrown in. We're equal-opportunity stereotypers."

Escape From L.A. finds Russell's Snake Plissken in police custody in the year 2013. A grim U.S. president (played by Cliff Robertson) is a right-wing religious zealot who wishes to use the seemingly indestructible Plissken as a pawn in a war against a right-wing voluptuary zealot (George Corraface) to see whose side gets to conquer the planet. Plissken's task, rather like that in the original Escape, involves a desperate mission within a quarantined city.

Carpenter credits Russell with the idea for the new film.

"After the January '94 earthquake, Kurt came to me and said, 'I think it's time to do to L.A. what we did to New York,' " Carpenter said. "He said that, of all the characters he's ever played, Snake Plissken is the only one he'd like to play again."

The writing was a collaborative process, involving Russell as well as production partner Debra Hill. Hill has called the Plissken character a fantasy-fusion of the personalities of Russell and Carpenter.

A 70-day shooting schedule, largely involving night scenes, began last December, capturing actual areas yet unrepaired from the '94 earthquake and utilizing a massive "built" set representing a destroyed Sunset Boulevard.

"Destruction makes such a fascinating metaphor for private turmoil," Carpenter said. "I believe it's the confrontation with such horrors that makes for a liberating movie. You know it's not happening to you, and so you're relieved by that, but still it's close enough to be scary."

Carpenter, a native of Carthage, N.Y., was raised in Bowling Green, Ky., from age 5 until his departure for film school at the University of Southern California after a hitch at Western Kentucky University. The matter of that Southern upbringing seldom comes up in discussions of Carpenter's work, but he mentioned that his breakthrough movie, the low-budget moneymaker Halloween (1978), was based upon a Bowling Green legend about a long-ago murder and a supposedly haunted house.

"There're plenty of creepy Southern legends," he said, "and plenty more really scary movies to be made from 'em.