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
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
"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
"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
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
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.