Assault on Precinct 13
(SPOILERS) You can’t read a review of Assault on Precinct 13 with stumbling over references to its indebtedness – mostly to Howard Hawks – and that was a preface for me when I first caught it on Season Three of BBC2’s Moviedrome (I later picked up the 4Front VHS). In Precinct 13’s case, it can feel almost like an attempt to undercut it, to suggest it isn’t quite that original, actually, because: look. On the other hand, John Carpenter was entirely upfront about his influences (not least Hawks), and that he originally envisaged it as an outright siege western (rather than an, you know, urban one). There are times when influences can truly bog a movie down, if it doesn’t have enough going for it in its own right. That’s never the case with Assault on Precinct 13. Halloween may have sparked Carpenter’s fame and maximised his opportunities, but it’s this picture that really evidences his style, his potential and his masterful facility with music.
You had the latter with Dark Star, of course, but not in the signature, driving, character-in-its-own-right way that the Assault on Precinct 13 score works. Again, Halloween’s might be more famous, and Escape from New York’s more honed, but I think this may be his best scoring effort, and it’s certainly a position many a musician has agreed, sampling it left, right and centre (notably Bomb the Bass with 1991’s Megablast). Combined with clean, crisp the 35mm Panavision widescreen photography, you’re not left longing for the roaming Panaglide he’d take up with his next cinema release.
Indeed, cinematographer Douglas Knapp came with the director from Dark Star and would appear to have been most comfortable as a camera operator (and occasional director of photography in TV: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek: Voyager, Enterprise). It’s a shame Carpenter didn’t call on him again after Dean Cundey became a big cheese; it’s clear from his work with Gary Kibbe that he needed someone competent, and Knapp helps conjure an atmosphere here every bit as potent as Cundey later would.
What you notice in particular here, despite the often-amusing dialogue, is a ruthless economy of purpose. Assault on a Precinct 13 has a tip-top motor and it’s precision-calibrated. There are few distractions from that simple sense of direction and intent: to tighten the screws.
Which is why all the talk – Alex Cox, for one – about its influences is largely distracting from the point. Is it really “a complicated series of borrowings from other films”? That makes it sound like it’s weighed down by them (Rio Brava, Night of the Living Dead) along with the appropriating of lines of dialogue. As for “but overall the tone is real pastiche” … It may be a pastiche in that sense, but it doesn’t feel like one in execution. It feels fresh, whereas you usually carry a pastiche’s influences with you. But then, Cox has a bit of an axe to grind, and he isn’t JC’s biggest fan, as “the loyal opposition”: “The acting is awful. So are the costumes. There are only two women in the film and they both wear identical sweaters. They have identical shapes too” (this is true, but I’m not sure it’s either here or there). He also thinks They Live! (in my Moviedrome Guide, from 1990, it has the “!” – take that, Mandela Effect!) “too, degenerates into a mush of running, jumping shooting chasing” (as you’ll know, if you’ve seen a Cox movie, he has much more refined tastes).
The History of the Movies, edited by Ann Lloyd (first published in 1982, hence the briefest of paragraphs in my 1988 edition, summarising Carpenter up to Big Trouble in Little China) offered an essay on Carpenter’s oeuvre titled “States of Siege”. It duly goes details the lore, of a $200,000 budget (actually $100,000) and a 24-day shoot, namechecking Hawks and Romero. There are several cogent criticisms here, however, which go back to the tonal austerity I mentioned, that where it “cannot yet match up to Hawks is in the subtlety of his characterisations” and how the “excellent” cast – do you hear that, Alex? – are “curiously anonymous”.
This much is true. You don’t remember the characters the way you do those in Escape from New York – Darwin Joston’s murderer Napoleon Wilson is very much a proto Plissken (characters with iconic names), an Eastwood antihero with a moral code, a thing for cigarettes and a deadpan for every exchange. But Joston – Carpenter’s then next-door neighbour – doesn’t linger in the mind. Austin Stoker, Tony Burton and Laurie Zimmer are all entirely serviceable as the lieutenant, a reluctant convict and a secretary respectively, but they don’t leave much impression. As Movies says “It is the situation, not the people that carries the film”.
And Carpenter sets up the situation expertly. True, the execution-style opening is almost apologetic (the motivation doesn’t really scan, and feels like a sop to any kind of need for a reason for random violence), but once the “culturally confused” street gang (as Kim Newman put it) is out gunning for public and police, the atmosphere of pregnant violence is potent. It erupts with an infamous scene – the MPAA expected it to be removed to get the picture an R – in which a little girl (Kim Richards) is shot through her ice cream, chillingly casually, by Frank Doubleday’s “White Warlord” (also featured, in the cultural confusion, are “Chicano Warlord”, “Oriental Warlord” and “Black Warlord”). Doubleday would later play fright-haired Romero in Escape from New York and a mercenary in Broadcast News. It’s the revenge taken by the girl’s fevered father Lawson (Martin West) that initiates the siege, as he flees into the decommissioned Anderson police precinct, also housing the impromptu passengers of a state prison bus.
That scene is, in my estimation, crucial to the impact of the movie. It establishes that anything could happen. Anything transgressive in its “shattering brutality”. IMDB really needs citations, but it quotes Mel Gibson observing he was a fan of movies like that which “went too far”. It’s interesting, then, that Carpenter berates himself in retrospect, suggesting it was “pretty horrible” and explicit and “I don’t think I’d do it again, but I was young and stupid”. It’s the Spielberg apologia for having Roy Neary go off in the ship and leaving his family all over again; maturity obscures the boldness and power of the initial choice. If Carpenter really wants to repent for something “pretty horrible” he needs look no further than the much more recent Vampires.
History of Movies had it that “Unlike any of his later films, Assault on Precinct 13 carries a stunning conviction; it comes altogether too close for comfort”. And there is a sense of doorstep terror, of the dad pursued by a relentless gang, of an isolated police station in the middle of a city at the mercy of marauders. The zombie motif, of unstoppable tableau aggressors in wide shot, would be called on again by the director, in both The Fog and Prince of Darkness, but its particular strength here is the incongruity of the uncanny as a representation of the real world (Carpenter had the drop on later gang movies, The Wanderers and The Warriors). Like the exposition at the outset, Carpenter promulgates a sense of genre displacement, of a zombie movie that gives documentary-style time codes.
Kim Newman considered the picture “accomplished”, recognising well enough that it merited a few paragraphs in Nightmare Movies, whereby the gang could be found “besieging an isolated police station with tactics that derive equally from Romero’s Living Dead and the Indians of Apache Drums”. Most of all, what’s striking about Assault on Precinct 13 is that it’s easy to look at – most of – the director’s ’90s work and wonder “Was there anything really that great about Carpenter at all? Did he just get lucky with a few solid scores and a great DP?” You rewatch Assault on Precinct 13 and you recognise that no, absolutely, he was a great director; this shows him at his most stripped down and effective. As for the remake. Functional, okay, forgettable. The only Carpenter movie I’d like to see remade is Dark Star, but in the opposite extreme. Give it a Valerian-sized budget. And the same beachball alien.