Today’s Picture of the Day comes from ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981), John Carpenter’s classic action thriller which made Kurt Russell an action movie hero.
I’ve chosen this picture mostly because, and I think this is true for most of John Carpenter’s films, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK has only gotten better with time. Like a lot of his other films in his early career, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK was not critically acclaimed. With the exception of HALLOWEEN (1978), critics gave Carpenter’s work a hard time. There was very little love for this movie upon its initial release in 1981.
It also didn’t wow the masses, as it was made on a smaller budget than most of big budget action films of the time, and it looks it, and back then with its cheaper look it struggled to connect strongly with audiences of the time. On a purely action movie level, it was not able to compete with the likes of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), for example.
But over the years, it has aged well, in spite of its “futuristic” science fiction plot— the action takes place in the “future” of 1997. Wow, that came and went quickly.
It has aged well because what was considered a “cheap” look in 1981, now looks artistic and special. I love the way New York City looks in this movie. The set design is dark and bleak, perfect for this story.
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is probably most famous for being the movie which changed Kurt Russell’s career, turned him from a child star in Disney films to bonefied action hero. It actually did more than that, as Russell took on all sorts of movie roles and pretty much became a household name after this film. Russell doesn’t disappoint. He’s terrific in this movie.
He almost didn’t get the part, as the producers didn’t feel he had the tough guy status to pull it off. Carpenter wrote the part with Clint Eastwood in mind, and Russell admits he played it as an homage to Eastwood. His performance works perfectly.
Russell plays Snake Plissken, a convict who is tasked with sneaking into the Manhattan Island maximum security prison and rescuing the abducted President of the United States, and unless he can get in and out in twenty-four hours, the authorities will kill him. The world which Carpenter creates inside that Manhattan prison, and the bizarre characters residing there, are the stuff of nightmares. It’s fabulous movie making.
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK also features a tremendous cast besides Russell. There’s Adrienne Barbeau, pictured above with Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Atkins, Charles Cyphers, Season Hubley, and Jamie Lee Curtis provided both the voice of the computer and the opening voice-over narration.
Of course, my favorite part of this movie is the amazing score by John Carpenter. It’s one of his best. Then again, you can say that about nearly every film score he wrote.
About the only thing that still doesn’t work for me in this movie is the casting of Donald Pleasence as the President of the United States. I love Donald Pleasence, but he’s miscast here.
If you haven’t checked out ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK recently, do yourself a favor and give it a fresh viewing. It’s already considered a classic of the genre, a superb science fiction action movie from the glory days of John Carpenter’s early career, but it wasn’t always considered that way. It has stood the test of time, and what I am saying today is, that not only that, but it has gotten even better in recent years.
There’s an imagination and spirit in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK that is present from start to finish, and it’s largely because of the talent of writer/director John Carpenter.
Welcome back to LEADING LADIES, that column where we look at lead actresses in the movies, especially horror movies.
Up today it’s Adrienne Barbeau, an actress whose long career continues through to this day as she is still actively making movies, but in her heyday, during the 1980s, she was on screen quite often in horror movies, especially those directed by John Carpenter. She and Carpenter were married from 1979 – 1984.
Here’s a partial look at her very impressive 152 screen credits:
MAUDE (1972- 1978) – Carol Trayner – The TV show on which Adrienne Barbeau became a household name, playing the adult daughter of main character Maude Findlay (Bea Arthur) in this Norman Lear spin-off from ALL IN THE FAMILY (1971-79). Maude is Edith Bunker’s cousin. Her liberal independent character was the complete opposite of bigot Archie Bunker. So, by the time Barbeau branched into movies, she was already well known to American audiences.
THE GREAT HOUDINI (1976) – Daisy White – Barbeau’s first movie screen credit was in this 1976 TV movie starring Paul Michael Glaser as Harry Houdini. I saw this one when it first aired, not just because I was a fan of STARSKY AND HUTCH (1975-79) the 70s cop show in which Glaser starred, but because in the cast I noticed was one Peter Cushing playing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle! It was Cushing’s first ever American TV movie, and he shot his scenes right after finishing work on STAR WARS (1977). THE GREAT HOUDINI is a really good movie, by the way, and features a very impressive cast. Besides Paul Michael Glaser, Adrienne Barbeau, and Peter Cushing, the film also starred Sally Struthers, Ruth Gordon, Vivian Vance, Bill Bixby, Nina Foch, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Geoffrey Lewis, Maureen O’Sullivan, and Clive Revill. Barbeau is excellent in a supporting role.
RED ALERT (1977) – Judy Wyche – TV movie thriller starring William Devane about a malfunction at a nuclear power plant. Pre-dates the more well-known THE CHINA SYNDROME (1979) by three years.
CRASH (1978) – Veronica Daniels – TV movie about the crash of Flight 401 into the Florida Everglades. Also starring William Shatner, Eddie Albert, Lorraine Gary, and Ron Glass, among others. Follows the formula of the AIRPORT movies, except this one is based on a true story.
SOMEONE’S WATCHING ME (1978) – Sophie – Another TV movie, this one written and directed by John Carpenter. In fact, it was on the set of this film that Carpenter and Barbeau first met. Long known as the “lost John Carpenter film,” as back in the day it never was released in the U.S. on VHS, and didn’t appear on DVD until 2007, this thriller centers on a woman played by Lauren Hutton being stalked and terrorized by an unknown male assailant. Barbeau plays the main character’s best friend.
THE DARKER SIDE OF TERROR (1979) – Margaret Corwin – Made for TV horror movie centering on clones. Also stars Robert Forster and Ray Milland.
THE FOG (1980) – Stevie Wayne – Barbeau’s first theatrical starring role is in this John Carpenter horror movie, which sadly, since it followed upon the heels of Carpenter’s breakthrough megahit HALLOWEEN (1978) was not well-received or treated kindly by critics at the time. I’ve always loved THE FOG, as it’s unique in that there aren’t too many other horror movies where fog and what arrives in it are the main menaces in the film. It’s an eerie ghost story, and the fog special effects are superior and when combined with Carpenter’s music, pretty much unforgettable. Curiously, one thing I’ve never liked about this movie, and it’s an unusual dislike for a John Carpenter film, is that in spite of a very impressive cast which includes Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, Tom Atkins, Hal Holbrook, Nancy Loomis, Charles Cyphers, and John Houseman, there’s not a single character I like in this one. None of the characters come to life for me, nor are any of the performances memorable, with the possible exception of Charles Cyphers’ Dan the weatherman character, who also gets one of the the best scenes in the movie when he answers the door to his weather station in the fog. But it’s a small role. This is unusual, since in most John Carpenter films, you do have memorable characters and performances, whether it’s Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence in HALLOWEEN, or Kurt Russell in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) and THE THING (1982) to name just a couple.
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) – Maggie -This is one of my favorite Adrienne Barbeau performances, in another genre film by John Carpenter. This futuristic science fiction actioner starring Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken, a hardened criminal sent into Manhattan which is now a maximum security prison in the “future” year of 1997 (!!!) by tough guy warden Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) to rescue the President (Donald Pleasence) from terrorists. Another John Carpenter classic. There’s a lot to love about this one even if believability is low throughout… Donald Pleasence as a U.S. President?… Great action scenes, another fantastic music score by Carpenter, and unlike in THE FOG, there are lots of memorable characters and fine performances, including Adrienne Barbeau as Maggie, the tough as nails unflappable girlfriend of super intelligent and resourceful Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), who both help Pliskin rescue the President from the villainous The Duke (Isaac Hayes).
SWAMP THING (1982) – Alice Cable – another theatrical horror/science fiction release, but this time not directed by John Carpenter, but by another classic horror movie director, Wes Craven. Not terribly well-received at the time, but I’ve always found this one mildly entertaining.
CREEPSHOW (1982) – Wilma Northrup “The Crate” – this is another of my favorite Adrienne Barbeau performances. In fact, this one just might be my favorite, pure and simple. In this superior horror anthology movie, directed by George Romero and written by Stephen King, Barbeau appears in one my favorite segments, “The Crate” which is about a hideous man-eating creature living inside a crate. She plays the relentlessly harsh and belittling wife to Hal Holbrook’s meek Henry Northrup, so when his visibly shaken friend Dexter (Fritz Weaver) shows up at his door one night with a horrifying tale of a man-eating monster back at the college campus where they teach, it gives Henry one wild idea to help solve a nagging problem before he decides to help Dexter take care of his monster dilemma.
THE THING (1982) – Computer voice (uncredited) – back with husband John Carpenter again, this time providing the voice of a computer. Arguably Carpenter’s best movie, this classic remake which was also initially panned by critics is today on so many horror movie fans’ lists as the best horror movie ever made. Period.
THE NEXT ONE (1984) – Andrea – Intriguing science fiction film about a stranger from the future played by Keir Dullea who meets the widowed wife of an astronaut played by Barbeau and her son.
TERROR AT LONDON BRIDGE (1985) – Lynn Chandler – TV movie starring David Hasselhoff about Jack the Ripper committing murders in 1985 by the newly restored London Bridge in Arizona. Written by William F. Nolan, who also wrote the screenplays for such genre films as THE NORLISS TAPES (1973) and BURNT OFFERINGS (1976). Nolan just passed away days ago, on July 15, 2021.
OPEN HOUSE (1987)- Lisa Grant – horror movie about a serial killer targeting real estate agents!
TWO EVIL EYES (1990) – Jessica Valdemar – Horror anthology movie based on Edgar Allan Poe tales directed by George A. Romero and Dario Argento.
DEMOLITION MAN (1993)- Computer voice, uncredited – Barbeau once again provides her voice for a computer in this science fiction actioner starring Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, and Sandra Bullock.
JUDGE DREDD (1995) – Central voice – another Sylvester Stallone science fiction action film, another opportunity for Barbeau to lend only her voice to a film.
BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES (1992-1995) – Catwoman/Selina Kyle/Martha Wayne – Barbeau provides voicework for this animated Batman TV show. Her voice work as Catwoman is arguably what she is most remembered for today.
THE NEW BATMAN ADVENTURES (1997-1998) – Catwoman/Selina Kyle- more voiceover work as Catwoman.
THE CONVENT (2000) – Adult Christine – Horror movie about demonic possession and a cursed convent.
GOTHAM GIRLS (2000-2002) – Catwoman/Selina Kyle – provides her voice yet again as the Catwoman in this animated TV series about female superheroes and female supervillains in Gotham City.
UNHOLY (2007) – Martha – Horror movie involving conspiracies, witches, Nazis, the occult, and secret government experiments. Should have been called UNBELIEVABLE.
WAR WOLVES (2009) – Gail Cash – Made for TV horror movie about werewolves, soldiers, and werewolf soldiers! Also starring John Saxon.
UNEARTH (2020) – Kathryn Dolan – Barbeau’s most recent theatrical film credit is in this horror movie about fracking.
While I jumped from 2009 to 2020, Barbeau was actively working during this decade, appearing in movies and on television nonstop during these years. And she has several projects in pre-production at present.
For me, Adrienne Barbeau will best be remembered as a leading lady from the 1980s in which she appeared in some of the decades biggest horror movies and contributed greatly to these films with her noteworthy performances. So there you have it. A brief partial look at the career of Adrienne Barbeau.
Hope you enjoyed the column and join me again next time when we look at the career of another leading lady.