Written and Directed by: John Carpenter
Starring: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, and Laurie Zimme
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďThere are no heroes anymore, Bishop. Just men who follow orders."
Conventionally speaking, John Carpenter didnít tackle the horror genre until 1978, and, while I donít typically hem and haw over genre labels hear me out: Assault on Precinct 13 is essentially the flip side of the coin opposite of Halloween. Where the latter captures a terror thatís crept its way into the suburbs, the former reveals an amoral horror festering in an urban epicenter. Taken as a whole, this duo presents a panorama of 70s anxieties in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam as America confronted its domestic boogeymen, something Carpenter was all too willing to indulge. With Michael Myers, he crafted the ultimate incarnation of pure, inexplicable evil, but he was up to the same thing a couple of years earlier in Precinct 13, a film that presents a similarly blank evil that may as well be every bit as faceless as The Shape.
It arguably hits even closer to home, as it imagines a landscape populated by militant gangs and questionable authority figures in the form of a nigh-despotic police force with no qualms about mistreating prisoners, shooting first, and asking questions later. Caught in between is Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker), a freshly promoted lieutenant set to supervise a decommissioned precinctís transition into a new building. His quiet night is suddenly interrupted when a man (Martin West) frantically enters the station after killing a gang member responsible for the slaying of his young daughter (Kim Richards). After tracking the man down to the station, a pack of gangs (already united by a blood-oath) mark everyone in the station for death, and the skeleton crew must team with inmates to fend them off.
Often described as a mix between Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead, Assault on Precinct 13 has especially been married to Hawksís film, no doubt because Carpenterís affection for that auteur has been so pronounced. However, itís difficult to discount the influence of Romeroís film, which informs the film both aesthetically and narratively. That it revolves around a siege makes it an obvious Rio Bravo riff, but Carpenter directs it as a suffocating horror show, as the gangs eerily and lifelessly surround the precinct like the undead. Even the thug thatís gunned down by West moves and dies with a deliberate inertia (Frank Doubleday practically provided the template for Nick Castleís inhuman Shape).
Thereís something preternatural about the proceedings, from the gangís underdeveloped motivations to their turning the siege into something of a ritual sacrificeótheyíre a hive-mind of pure evil, not unlike Myers. What else could be responsible for gunning down a girl in cold blood during one of the most shocking sequences ever filmed? Iím not sure Carpenter ever quite stared so deeply into the abyss afterwards, and few cinematic images reflect Americaís angst over its lost innocence so forcibly. If even little girls can be ruthlessly shot down while visiting an ice cream truck, what hope is there, really?
Carpenter finds hope in both expected and unexpected places. Stokerís Bishop anticipates the typical Carpenter protagonist: a gruff do-gooder caught in the middle of some extraordinary circumstances (or, to paraphrase Jack Burton, a reasonable man who experiences some very unreasonable things). He also echoes his forbearers on the cinematic frontier in his refusal to shirk his duty, which would have been especially reassuring for contemporary audiences (and it may be even more so these days). When pressed into a harrowing situation, he confidently rallies his group of similar everymen (and, quite notably, women) to fend off this inexplicable menace thatís arrived on their doorstep like so much unwanted baggage. The 1976 setting lends itself to a number of allegorical readings, as this ragtag bunch might as well be metaphorically shaking off a decadeís worth of doldrums and despair. As much as the film is informed by Rio Bravo, itís arguably about Hawksís film, or at least about a nostalgic desire to return to a simpler era.
More unexpected is the comfort found in Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Johnson), an inmate marked for death row after committing murder. He should be deplorable and unseemly, but heís too charismatic (and even downright magnanimous) to completely condemn. It might be Carpenterís slyest move in Assault on Precinct 13; while, Bishop is obviously meant to recall a more heroic age, Wilson is a wild card that reminds us that villains were once of a nobler sort as well. Carpenter not only wistfully yearns for an age with better heroes but also an age of better villains that operated with some semblance of a code, a stark contrast to the faceless, unfathomable horde gathering outside here. Wilson is the devil we know and perhaps begrudgingly love, whereas these congregating brutes represent a more sinister demonic force.
Carpenter's pairing of Bishop and Wilson is a fascinating snapshot of 70s moral ambiguity as well. Such an unexpected pairing was not a new concept, but it certainly takes on added meaning within its context. If its immediate threat werenít horrifying enough, the film also forces audiences to reckon with a world where heroes and villains are blurred, their fates intertwining with every twist and turn. Itís arguably that notion thatís most horrifying here, and you could understand any audience that might have recoiled from it given its horrifying relevancy. That Carpenter doesnít make light of the racial dynamics is intriguing, and, while the film is far from a treacly moral tract about racial harmony, one has to wonder if Carpenter isnít slyly rebutting any post-Civil Rights angst as well. When the film ends with the two as indisputable sequels walking side-by-side, itís not tough to read Precinct 13 as a confirmation of one of the few good things to emerge from the squalor of the late 60s.
Most incredibly, this was only Carpenterís second feature (if one counts Dark Star, anyway), and none of these political preoccupations overwhelm a crackling action movie. Rather than dip his toes in, Carpenter dives in head first and establishes a trademark aesthetic that would recur over the next two decades. Resting upon a precise sense of editing and Carpenterís expertise with the widescreen frame, Assault on Precinct 13 looks and feels like a John Carpenter movie before that was even really a thing (one should not be surprised to know that he also crafted the filmís score). Few directors have ever made such assured efforts early in their careers, and Carpenter makes it look breathlessly easy.
Within the first few years of his career, Carpenter perfectly captured both urban and suburban horror; the former has always (and perhaps understandably) been in the shadow of the latter, and the home video treatment has often reflected that. As fans have stocked up on endless Halloween DVD/Blu-ray releases over the years, Assault has gone a bit underappreciated, but Scream Factory has delivered a definitive Collectorís Edition that ports over previous special features (an interview with Carpenter and Stoker, a trailer, radio spots, a commentary with the director, and an isolated score track) and joins them with a new commentary featuring art director Tommy Lee Wallace, and new interviews with Nancy Kyes and Stoker. The presentation improves on the already strong Image Entertainment release, as Scream has upgraded the original mono mix to a DTS-MA track to seal the deal. If nothing else, Scream is also providing frequent reminders of Carpenterís genius, which proves to be all the more evident with each revisit of his canon. Essential!
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