I’ve heard it said that nearly every movie about a future urban dystopia steals its style from Blade Runner. While I can certainly see the resemblance between the aesthetic of Blade Runner and that of many later films about the future, it’s worth noting that many ’80s movies were portraying cities with the same darkness, theatricality, vivid color, and nods to film noir cinematography as Blade Runner. What’s interesting is how using a theatrical and colorful style in both visuals and characters was very common in horror films in the 1970s, but then somehow moved into the mainstream in the 1980s, seemingly without reason. It makes sense for a horror film to have a mixture of darkness and theatricality, but why did this become a part of the styles of all ’80s movies?
I think the answer is Escape from New York, which I see as a more or less direct predecessor to Blade Runner. Released in 1981, this movie shows horror director John Carpenter bringing the stylistic elements of horror – including the visual style, the acting style, and the writing style – to both the dystopian sci-fi genre and the action genre. I suspect that this film took part in making over-the-top lighting more mainstream, but as much as I appreciate this, I think what’s particularly impressive about this film is how it brings much cleverness to the action genre. Most action movies are just looking for an excuse to fire a gun or set off a bomb, but this movie is interested in creating situations that make the viewer really want to see the action hero – or anti-hero – take action. There’s a wonderful scene with a street that everyone tries to avoid driving down at night because lines of people on either side of the road wait for unsuspecting cars, line up, and smash the car as it goes along their little conveyor-belt of doom. There’s technically no reason for this to be considered a “horror” scene since there’s nothing supernatural about it and there’s arguably no suggestion of insanity (merely desperation), but it’s certainly the kind of scene that only a horror filmmaker would write.
Of course, there are other aspects of the writing that are more conventional for the genre – a rescue mission, a countdown, etc. – but even these are done in a way that somehow creates more intensity than most action films. This makes Escape from New York a thrilling, chilling, and exciting film that’s sure to make the viewer rethink film genres altogether.