“Good evening. The world of fantasy and illusion has been with us since man first walked upon this Earth. It is within this world that rhyme, reason and logic have no substance or weight; where justice and rewards are issued from no courtrooms or judge, and the impossible becomes virtually commonplace. Journey with me now, for the next hour, and you will be introduced to six stories, from the humorous and bizarre, to the surrealistic and macabre. Welcome to ‘Escapes.’”– Vincent Price as The Host in Escapes
Earlier this year, I tried my hand at writing my first anthology film, inspired by the Italian genre films of the seventies and eighties. For research, I revisited the likes of Burial Ground (1981) and Cruel Jaws (1995 [but shamelessly aping unlicensed footage from The Last Shark (1981) and Deep Blood (1989)]) but also, of course, a large number of anthologies. And while I could—and have—spoken at length for as long as I can remember on the merits of Tales from the Hood (1995), Cat’s Eye (1985)or Tales from the Crypt (1972)and the rest of the Amicus anthology series, those films have already garnered an enormous amount of well deserved praise over the years. On the other end of the spectrum, no one really needs to hear more griping about the infamously misguided Creepshow III (2006) or the seemingly endless onslaught of recent anthologies that have been shot on consumer grade camcorders. Those movies have a place, certainly, but in that phantom like middle ground between the lauded classics and maligned dregs of the portmanteau subgenre, there lie quite a few diamonds in the rough. And it’s here where we find a relatively obscure little gem known as Escapes (1986).
The sole feature effort from director David Steensland, Escapes initially started out as a handful of separately produced short films for the Sci-Fi Channel, with which they could fill out gaps in their programming blocks. With the aid of a reported $10,000 paycheck to Vincent Price, a wraparound story was filmed, concerning a young man arriving home to discover a mysterious copy of Escapes, a movie he’s never heard of, and which he certainly didn’t order. He eats through a minute of screen time trying to get a buddy over to watch it with him, then starts it up on his own, the venerable Mr. Price soon after appearing in the far corner of an abstract, shadowy statue gallery, to usher him—and us—into the world of fantasy and illusion.
The meta narrative tying the stories together is our first indication that there’s a bit more going on under the hood of this direct-to-video obscurity, and allows us to get into the thick of things well before the first ten minutes have passed by. It’s a fittingly unassuming introduction to a film that is far more focused on low-key eerie fun than the more typically gonzo genre thrills of the mid-eighties, and tonally feeds quite naturally into the first segment.
“A Little Fishy” is far and away the shortest segment, running just shy of five minutes, and playing out essentially as a dark silent comedy. It’s amusing, with a cute hook subsequently ripped off in at least one Budweiser spot, and serves as an effective lead-in to the star of the show, “Coffee Break.”
“Coffee Break” runs a little under fifteen minutes, and it’s here that I repeatedly fall in love with Escapes forever. Veteran actor John Mitchum, near the end of his life, amicably encourages folks who pass through the woodsy little one-horse town of Harmony to stop and smell the roses, or in this case, enjoy themselves a nice, hot cuppa’ coffee at the local diner.
“Coffee Break” is an unassuming enough scenario, but what it lacks in complexity, it more than makes up for in sincerity. Mitchum’s folksy monologuing takes up nearly half the segment’s runtime, growing ever slightly more sinister as he goes on pleading with a frenzied delivery boy to slow down, take it easy, enjoy himself and sit down at the Harmony Café for a nice, hot cuppa’ coffee.
Since the first time we happened on Escapes back in early 2018, my buddy and I have probably said “Nice hot cuppa’ coffee” four million times between us. In revisiting the film a couple years later, “Coffee Break” has lost none of its magic, working on a simple, yet profoundly effective basis of good ol’ boy charm and idyllic small town values, and how they can serve to mask an insidious, inescapable underbelly.
“Who’s There?” runs seven or eight minutes, and brings back the playful, mostly silent comedic tone of the first story. Essentially a tongue-in-cheek deconstruction of a monster movie, it follows a nameless jogger ashamedly sneaking a treat of cream-filled yellow cake, but losing the second pastry in the pack to a band of thieving beasts, lurking in the woods. Ultimately, the segment seems to be about the nature of first impressions, and sensing danger where there may not necessarily be. It’s slight, but undemanding, which may seem like a backhanded compliment, but could also be said of Escapes as a whole, in the most endearing way.
“Jonah’s Dream,” the longest of the stories at a few seconds over the twenty minute mark, is a more somber tale than the rest of the lot, concerning kindly old Mary Tucker, the widow of a gold miner, who’s still “Got the fever, just like old Jonah.” Midway through, it takes a sharp right turn into the weird and fantastical, with some impressive effects work and a heady finale aided by an effectively sympathetic score..
In addition to being the longest of the bunch, “Jonah’s Dream” is also the slowest going, and perhaps the most open-ended in terms of its denouement. How the tale hits a viewer will depend on the individual, but it’s certainly the most [Read: Only] female-driven tale of the lot, and absolutely earns its length by nature of its ambition, uniqueness and heart.
Finally, we find “Think Twice,” perhaps the weakest of the film’s five stories, but also the one with the funkiest soundtrack. On paper, this tale about a bad luck charm being passed from bum to bum in dark alleyways seems ripe for exploration, but it grinds to an abrupt halt almost as soon as it gets going, and misses an opportunity for a clever bad-to-worse-to-worse Rube Goldberg scenario. That said, the seven or eight minute runtime brings us back to the wraparound story in short order, so its placement in the film is agreeable, even if it does follow four arguably stronger efforts.
With all this behind us, we find ourselves back in the framework story, as our intrepid hero finishes up his viewing experience of Escapes just as we are. I’d be remiss to delve any deeper into the film’s big finale, but suffice it to say that Vincent Price truly steals the show in his final moments.
As the credits come up on Escapes, one truth becomes more certain than any other: Escapes is very possibly the most entertaining horror movie ever made with practically no adult content—there’s no cursing, no nudity or sexual content of any kind and nary a drop of blood in the whole movie. Only “A Little Fishy” and “Think Twice” feature any blood at all, and there is a near total absence of on-screen death. Along with the playful tone, speedy pace and sub-seventy minute runtime, this makes Escapes an easy recommendation for parents looking to introduce their kids to horror, and just as easy a recommendation for anyone who’s not in the mood for anything too hard edged at the moment.
In doing research for this article, I came upon a small blurb on the film’s IMDb page, indicating that a 2017 DVD release from Intervision had featured the film’s restored Director’s Cut for the first time in the US. While the notation claimed that this extended version added in a whole new segment, I couldn’t seem to find any listing of Escapes on DVD . . . until I discovered that the film is essentially a bonus feature on a totally unrelated movie.
Dark Harvest (1992, and not to be confused with several other films or the incredibly disturbing Invader Zim episode of the same name) is a relatively poorly received Shot-On-Video slasher flick, and from what I could find online, a questionable companion piece to Escapes, which predated it by more than five years. But I wasn’t about to write seventeen hundred words on Escapes without seeing everything it had to offer, so in a moment of indomitable fervor, I did the nearly unthinkable and purchased a piece of physical media. And then I waited three to five business days, switched my tertiary HDMI cable from the NES Classic to my dusty old Blu-ray player and watched Escapes again.
Now, I don’t want to be that guy who recommends people spend money on a slightly extended cut of a movie they can easily find online while unemployment is still at a record high, but if you find yourself enjoying the most readily available cut of the film, the DVD edit is certainly worth a look. The new story, “Hobgoblin Bridge,” has some terrific camerawork and editing, though it does also feature some iffy child actors and unfortunate audio leveling issues (much like Dark Harvest, which I can now confirm is abhorrent, and the kind of sexist, violent horror film from which Escapes couldn’t be farther removed). More important than the overall quality of the segment though, is that somehow, some way, more than thirty years after its unceremonious pseudo-release, with fifteen solid minutes of cuts and hog-tied to an unrelated slasher flick . . .