If recent interviews are any indication, John Carpenter seems to have settled into a comfortable semi-retirement consisting of video games, weed, and collecting money from studios mining his back catalogue for properties to reboot, remake, or otherwise churn into modern corporate IP. If anyone has earned some R&R in their golden years, it’s Carpenter, who managed to remain remarkably productive over almost forty years despite falling in and out of fashion with the mainstream. But Carpenter’s reputation as a “master of horror” belies just how unique his career achievements have actually been. For every straightforward horror outing like Halloween or The Fog, Carpenter is just as likely to mix and match sci-fi and action-adventure tropes into the proceedings, leading to truly singular works like Big Trouble in Little China and Escape From New York. His second feature, Assault on Precinct 13, made directly after the no-budget oddity Dark Star and just two years before the breakthrough success of Halloween, plays on paper like a minimalist action picture. But in practice it almost becomes a kind of zombie film, with a small group of survivors in a single location besieged by hordes of largely faceless aggressors determined to force their way in. As Adrian Martin has written, “Carpenter is always playing on what you can see but can’t exactly make out; what you can hear but not immediately locate. He is a master at using patches of starkly contrasted light and dark in the frame, and he turns every plot into a frightening drama of space — people enclosed in spaces trying to make their way out of one room, down a corridor, into an attic or cellar.” Indeed, this description applies just as much to Prince of Darkness as it does Assault on Precinct 13, which itself owes just as much to Night of the Living Dead as it does any of the rough-and-tumble urban thrillers of the 1970s.
Perhaps buoyed by the success of 1974’s Death Wish, Carpenter imagines a then contemporary Los Angeles as a minimalist nightmare of angular concrete and flat, barren landscapes. After a street gang is ambushed in the dead of night by police officers, the surviving members join forces and swear a blood oath against cops. Meanwhile, recently promoted Lt. Bishop (Austin Stoker) is assigned to oversee the decommissioning and closure of a local police precinct. While there, Bishop receives word that a prisoner transport bus is going to make an emergency stop to tend to a sick inmate. While this is transpiring, gang members prowl the streets looking to cause trouble. In a still-shocking moment, one of them shoots a little girl as she eats an ice cream cone. Enraged, the girl’s father kills several members of the gang, the remainder of whom then chase the man. Scared out of his wits and nearly catatonic at the loss of his child, the man stumbles upon the almost empty precinct and begs for safe harbor. Bishop allows him in while one of the remaining secretaries, Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), tries to figure out what exactly is going on. Still hunting the man who killed their brethren, an army of gangbangers descend upon the building and proceed to lay siege to it, killing several of the prisoners and guards from the bus. One of the few survivors is Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), an almost mythological criminal who nonetheless seems to have a moral code of some sort. As occupants of the precinct get picked off one by one, eventually only Bishop, Leigh, and Napoleon remain to fend off the final assault from their brutal attackers.
Much has been made of Carpenter’s affinity for Howard Hawks, and nowhere has Hawks’ predilection for tough, no-nonsense characters been more evident in Carpenter’s work than Assault. The plot is indeed a riff on Hawks’ own Rio Bravo, and Carpenter edited the film himself under the pseudonym John T. Chance, John Wayne’s character’s name in Rio Bravo. There’s certainly a Hawksian feel to the characters, all of whom eventually prove themselves to be professionals, cool under pressure. Napoleon and Bishop form a begrudging admiration for one another, while Napoleon and Leigh share a casual, flirty banter while dodging bullets. But whatever Carpenter’s enthusiasm for Hawks, his aesthetic approach couldn’t be more different than Hawks’ warm, organic approach to image-making. While Hawks perfected a kind of unity between the human body and the surrounding filmic space, Carpenter carves up his frames with angular geometry and large swaths of negative space. Characters are squeezed into corners or otherwise contained within the image, surrounded by darkness. The first-person POV shots of Halloween (frequently, and incorrectly, attributed to early Steadicam use, but actually the older Panaglide system) are justly famous, but Carpenter arguably does more with less here; with little money and working with Panavision cameras for the first time, Carpenter uses frequent dolly shots to track the camera up and down narrow halls and in between jail cells. It’s a masterclass in creating claustrophobic interiors, where violence can erupt at any moment. In his original blurb for the Chicago Reader, Dave Kehr refers to the film as “short on motivation but long on paranoia.” It’s true enough; plot mechanics don’t particularly interest Carpenter, and the politics on display are largely incoherent. But it’s that very lack of motivation that gives the film its kick — this is primal, existential stuff, pure nightmare fuel (and a fascinating precursor to what would become Halloween). Whether making an action film or a scary movie, Carpenter excels at capturing the uncanny. After all, terror comes in all shapes and sizes.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.