Assault On Precinct 13 (1976)
‘You got a smoke?‘ – As we approach our tenth birthday I knew it was time to finally broach a very serious milestone for the Menagerie, covering a sacred text that I have referenced and revered throughout our long and winding journey. This is becoming something of the year of the Carpenter with not one, not two but three JC events which demand my attention, and when I saw the screening schedule of this stimulating season knew I had to finally turn my attention to one of the unimpeachable foundations of my movie-love, a key text which had quite an influence on my evolving obsession with all things celluloid. Given my age of course I’d been beguiled by the likes of Indiana Jones, E.T. and Star Wars in my infantile appreciation, just like all the other members of my generation, but at some point those mainstream movies mutated into a love of John Carpenter movies, just as the idea of films having directors or some form of creative agent behind them was starting to coalesce in my perambulating mind. This was the golden age of the VHS format and I soon started to acquire a collection of those big bundles of tape and plastic, and I distinctly recall buying The Fog and Escape From New York for the princely sum of £5.99 each, a king’s ransom when your paper round income barely kept me in comic books and Michael Moorcock paperback’s from our local purveyor of all things geektastic. Somehow Assault On Precinct 13 had already infiltrated my mind as I can’t recall a period when it wasn’t in my all-time top five, it must have started with some late-night TV viewing, where that melee of exotic L.A. street gangs, a prowling electronica score and badass anti-heroes combined to show me what other genre birthed treasures lay beyond the mainstream Hollywood blockbuster template. I have been keeping an eye out for a London screening for the past fifteen years so when I learnt of its inclusion on the Prince Charles hosted season you can imagine my reaction, and although this screening was over a month ago I’ve kept this on the backburner as I wanted to synchronise such a milestone as the first piece written from my new home – just a little marker that heralds a new chapter of this quiet corner of the internet. So let’s begin at the beginning which is usually a logical choice, the lights dim, the curtains part and we’re back to 1976;
It’s an oft quoted observation but I love how films of this era took their time with their titles, they eased you into the picture through a slow environmental acclimatisation while discreetly signalling some of the semiotics of the experience to come through colour, font and graphic design choices, and of course that pulverising score which sets the seething tempo of the entire picture. In terms of plot the story is as finessed and sleek as the films compact run-time – 1970’s LA, and the cops have launched a violent crack-down on the various deadly street gangs that are boiling in a multi-racial cauldron of social malaise. When a particularly virulent capo guns down a young girl in cold blood – a scene which still causes the jaw to drop today – her bereaved father takes lethal vengeance, invoking the wrath of the street gangs as he flees to the supposed sanctuary of an adjacent police precinct. Staffed with a skeleton crew of officers headed by newly promoted First Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) Precinct 13 is scheduled to decant to new premises, hence the isolated communications and resources the lawmen have at their disposal. Coincidently, a group of bus-bound convicts are diverted to the station when one of their group is taken ill, a rather unfortunate development as their arrival coincides with the gangs initial efforts to circle the chain of revenge in a natives versus civilisation scenario that’s not a million miles away from the template of a John Ford or Howard Hawks picture….
I’ll confess I was a little anxious about this screening, slightly concerned that a film I haven’t revisited for a few years wouldn’t stack up as so many films deteriorate with the changing times, shattering the foundations of Menagerie’s mecca like a drone strike on an orphanage. Does Assault highlight and ameliorate the great implacable mysteries of the human condition? No, not really. Does it speak to common truths across borders and ages, caressing the very contours of the soul through its aesthetic brilliance ? Probably not. It is however a tautly crafted, immensely entertaining genre picture with a motley crew of engaging and amusing characters, armed with a devastatingly influential electronica score which unlocked new realms of cinematic and aural obsession and appreciation. For me it is one of these guilty pleasures that will never fade in affection, an artefact, a text indelibly etched on the soul like that book your Dad recommend you read which subsequently inspired your career choices, like that album that formed the soundtrack of your wooing, romance and subsequent break-up of your first true love, a documents that you will carry with you until the day you die, a relic which embroiders the fabric of your life. In terms of context it is one of the key cult films of the 1970’s for a certain generation, appealing to the same breed of street smart urban horror fans who also gravitated to The Warriors, The Wanderers and Dawn Of The Dead, speared by the vicious vision of this strange, violent and colourful concept of America that seemed a million miles away in that pre-globalised adolescent era. I can’t make any claim or argue for its position beyond more than a finely honed urban thriller with calibrated through a genuine genre affection, but for me it still holds that indescribable quality, a sense of pungent nostalgia which I’ll admit can occasionally obscure a film’s latent shortcomings and weaknesses. Its about tribes and tribal affiliations so I’d offer a meta-reading, as when the likes of Laurent Garnier used to drop the soundtrack into his techno sets or the likes of Gasper Noe aligns a pornographically provocative scene in his recent film Love to that same slithering score you know you’re in an exclusive little gang, hostile to outsiders and committed to the bloody and change strewn end.
‘I got me a plan, it’s called save-ass, and here’s how it works – I jump out of the window, and I run like a bastard’ – In terms of the screening itself I assumed a digital experience, a prediction which was vindicated and to be expected. The anamorphic widescreen looked pixel-poised terrific and although I would have preferred an analogue 35mm screening I doubt there is a single 35mm print in the country or indeed Europe, although the French quite wisely always liked Carpenter and recognised his influences and inspirations as being sourced from a rich tradition of American genre gentrification. The Prince Charles always puts on a comfortable screening environment and ameliorates an appreciative crowd, it’s strange that I don’t make more of an effort to go to screenings there considering the competitive ticket price and amusing panoply of programming. My lore and knowledge wasn’t as wide as it now is when I first became enamoured with the film, but now it is blatantly obvious how Carpenter transplanted the Hawksian western to a ghetto glued Los Angeles for Assault, forming a rag-tag bunch of desperados, lawmen and support functionaries into a self-sustaining group whom have to bond, respect and trust each other to overcome their outsider alien foe, with just a suggestion of an equally footed romance between the main players to lace the danger with lightning strike of empathic energy. Carpenter’s use of space is his masterful metier, composing movement and threat in the frame and cutting action scenes to an expert choreography of information and trembling tempo, a claustrophobic master of the isolated siege movie – think Prince Of Darkness, The Thing, and Ghosts Of Mars – Ah, yes, OK, maybe don’t dwell on the last one too much. For the aficionado it’s also fun to link through the directors stock repertoire of supporting players, with Charles Cyphers, Nancy Loomis and Frank Doubleday going on to feature in other Carpenter crafts, that’s just one of those activities we geeks like to indulge in as some sort of pointless celluloid cerebral masturbation. Although Darwin Joston is my favourite – and more on him below – kudos also goes to Laurie Zimmer as the resourceful Leah, a pioneer Hawksian woman who gives as good as she gets, steadfastly fighting alongside the men instead of shrieking in terror when the carnage begins. She didn’t have much of a career and Stoker was best known for one of the latter Planet Of The Apes movies, this however being the age of ephemera guess what? Someone in 2003 only went and made a whole fucking documentary on Zimmer although I can’t find trace of it to buy or rent, and if you really want useless trivia then the little girl who gets clipped is apparently now one of ‘star’ members of the Housewife’s Of Beverley Hills ‘reality‘ show.
‘Life Just Seems To Pass Us By’ – The film seems to be pulled in the slipstream of so called facist works like Dirty Harry which took a similar black or white (if you’ll excuse the racial overtones) posture to the dregs of the criminal scum, the street gang members are projected as faceless cannon-fodder injuns, with no positioning of their social or economic realities to indicate why they might band together against the persecution of the authoritarian police state. In my view nor should there be as this isn’t that kind of picture, it’s a pure character driven action film which offers no political diatribe or satire that the libertarian streak of his later films would so confidently communicate – They Live and Escape From New York being the prime examples. We’re in no doubt that these silhouettes are mindless, almost insect herded murderers, with no quarter given nor asked for, a notion of a formless existential evil beyond our comprehension which is a nebulous world view that runs through the remainder of Carpenters horror pictures like the stygian river Styx flows through Hades. I love the frustrated character of Wells whom eagle-eyed viewers will recognise as Rocky’s sparring partner or perhaps as the Snowcat engineer in the longer domestic cut of The Shining. If you think that’s particularly cinephile obsessive then I’ll go one better, which brings us to the lamented figure of Austin Stoker. He delivers a pitch-perfect performance as the mysterious Napoleon Wilson, a turn I worried wouldn’t age as well as the rest of the picture, treading a fine line between stoic, enigmatic coolness and exploitation efficiency – he knows he’s in a fun little genre picture but treats the material with an appropriate modicum of respect. It’s a real shame that his early death guillotined a potential inclusion in the ‘oh that guy’ portfolio of interesting character actors, like John Cazale he seemed to have a potentially promising career cut woefully short. He appeared in two other films – a blink and you’ll miss it doctor in The Fog, and most cultishly he also made an incongruous appearance in Eraserhead– and that’s how you link early Lynch to latter Kubrick back to early Carpenter my learned friends, the master is now in session…..
‘I have my moments’ – Two years later Carpenter built on his modest film festival success by leveraging a few hundred thousand bucks out of international producers Irwin Yablans and Moustapha Akkad to finance his and his then girlfriend Debra Hill’s suburban horror tale about a babysitter terrorised by a indestructible bogeyman, and ushered in a whole new horror genre in the process. Halloween and The Thing are probably Carpenters masterpieces, the absolute apotheosis of their respective genres that have never been bettered within the structure of their symbols and semiotics, but for me it will always be that pulsing score, the silenced bark of the M16 armalite’s and the weary wise-cracking of Napoleon Wilson that occupies the apotheosis of this favoured auteur, as much as I love his entire 1974 – 1988 body of work. Naturally I’ve seen the remake and unsurprisingly dismissed it, it wasn’t a bad film as these projects go it was just kinda pointless really, it didn’t have the confidence or skill to do anything interesting or contemporary with the characters or setting as an update for 2005. So that’s that, another crucial foundation of the Menagerie finally gets its dues, and already the new releases I want to cover are stacking up in a holding position like some frenzied air-traffic control official’s work programme, let alone the launch of a major new season which begins in glorious 4K at the BFI. But we’re not done with Mr. Carpenter yet as we have another crucial centrepiece of the oeuvre to cross off with an extraordinarily exciting 70mm print of a 1980’s cult classic, so never forget that it’s all in the reflexes;