Saturday, September 11, 2021

Assault on Precint 13 (1976).

I don't think he needs that much of an introduction.  At least, I hope not.  From where I'm standing at the moment, it looks like the reputation of John Carpenter seems to be in pretty good shape.  He's still got that level of name recognition where, if you mention one of his films, even if its just one of his lesser known works, then most audiences and genre fans will have at least some idea of who you're talking about.  Isn't he the guy who made that Michael Myers film?  That's true enough, so far as it goes.  Over the years, Carpenter has managed to carve out a name for himself in the black sheep genre of American cinema, the Horror film.  Even to this day, people still tend to hold films like Halloween and The Thing in pretty high regard.  The former is often placed alongside the work of Alfred Hitchcock as an example of masterclass filmmaking.  I guess you could call it a pretty good exercise in suspense, although that doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of a movie like that.  Nonetheless, this is a good enough summary of the rough idea that most viewers have of the director.  However a rough idea isn't quite the same thing as the full picture.

When it comes to gaining a better idea of who Carpenter was as an artist, the best go-to source I've got is the book-length study by John Kenneth Muir.  The future director first arrived on the scene in 1948, Carthage, NY.  He was born into the household of a Mr. Howard Carpenter, a professional music teacher, as well as something of an accomplished musician in his own right.  "Howard Carpenter later played in sessions with celebrity musicians Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, Roy Orbison and Brenda Lee.  Often, young John Carpenter would ride with his father to Nashville, Tennessee, to watch his dad perform with these icons, and so Carpenter Junior was exposed not only to a universe of creativity, but the world of celebrity as well (60)".  

I think a bit of trivia like this is notable for a number of reasons.  The main one is because of what it tells us about how this one artist, in particular, got his start.  The biggest the requirement, the one that seems to come before everything else, is the presence of an active imagination, combined with the almost natural ability to tap into it on a creative level.  That's the first hurdle.  The second is the luck of the draw in finding the right kind of environment that will help to foster this seedling form of talent.  Now, to be fair, the great majority of the writers out there have managed to make it by their own efforts, despite coming from backgrounds that were less that auspicious.  Carpenter seems to have been in luck with his upbringing.  The imagination seems to have been in place, along with the kind of atmosphere to act as a spur to such latent, creative abilities.  All that remains is to figure out what is the natural creative expression for the individual talent.  Muir is able to provide us with that information as well.  

"John Carpenter's early cinematic influences  included not just westerns such as the Howard Hawks classic Rio Bravo (1959), but also science fiction productions focusing on the possibility of life on other worlds.  Among his favorites were Ray Bradbury and Jack Arnold's It Came from Outer Space (1953)...Roger Corman's low budget It Conquered the World (1956), Nigel Kneale's Quatermass adventure Enemy from Space (1957), and the grandaddy of all monster movies, King Kong (1933).

"By age eight, John Carpenter was inspired to realize his fantasies and produce his own films.  Equipped with an 8mm camera and ingenuity to spare, Carpenter began directing his schoolyard buddies through intense cinematic paces in back yard.  Through age 14, John continued producing and directing 40-minute genre shorts like Revenge of the Colossal Beasts, Terror from Space, Gorgo vs. Godzilla, and even Gorgon the Space Monster.  All the while, the young director experimented with his craft by employing stop-motion photography (a'la Willis O'Brien or Ray Harryhausen), rear projection, forced perspective, and other special effects uncommonly seen in home-made movies.  At the same time, Carpenter indulged his desire to dramatize entertaining and often frightening adventures (6)". 

All that phenomena described above might come off puzzling to most folks reading this.  In reality, it's all part of a much broader movement.  Carpenter's love of movie Westerns, Sci Fi, and Horror, are all tell-tale signs if you know what you're looking at.  The best definition I've been able to find for it is to describe the young director as a Monster Kid.  Nor was he alone in fitting that particular description.  Like I say, he was part of a whole unofficial, suburban backyard movement of like minded genre fans.  These were kids who were born in the aftermath of the Second World War, the so-called Baby Boomers.  The Monster Kids went together to make up a subsection of this then new generation.  

They were the guys (and also a lot of gals) who found their way towards literary awareness through a shared liking for the all the Fantastic genres, with a marked emphasis on the Gothic, and all its trappings.  This meant you had a lot of local kids running around the neighborhood who kept posters of Lon Chaney's old, Phantom of the Opera film on their walls.  Or maybe it would be a picture of the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  Either that or you'd find old, thumbed copies of Forry Ackerman's monster fanzines lying around the place, tucked away in the closet where mom and dad couldn't reach.  These then were the children of a burgeoning second wave of Horror fiction in America. Their first artistic loves tended to be the original Universal Monster movies, or else the new American International schlock pictures they were showing down at the Drive-In.  For whatever reason, it just happened that a lot of the young kids of the 1950s found themselves gravitating to the cinema of the macabre, and it left the kind of impact that people still like to talk about to this day.  

The reason it was all so important, as documentarian Robert Tinnell likes to point out, is because these Monster Kids were really the pioneers who gave us all the genre flicks most of us still like to re-watch and gush about to this day.  Guys like Carpenter, Rick Baker, and some nebbish Arizona kid named Spielberg, they all pretty much gave us our childhoods.  The important thing to remember, however, is that it has been described as a movement.  In other words, I'm willing to make the claim that the shared enthusiasms of a bunch of neighborhood kids for all things monster and Horror related was enough to become the first stirrings of a collective, artistic enterprise that was able to find its way onto both the page and and big or small screen later on down the line.  Nor where the Monster Kids alone in their endeavors.  At a professional level, you also had the literary group known as the California Sorcerers breaking new ground within the confines of an old genre.

Perhaps it helps to note here that there is nothing in the least out of the ordinary in the idea of their being two or more sets of artistic collectives operating at the same time, each of them under the umbrella of a shared love for certain types of creative fiction.  It really does seem to be one of the most fundamental impulses in human history.  As a result, you can have the Sorcerer's out in California, trying to realize that enthusiasm at a professional level (not without a very influential amount of success), while out in the American suburbs you have the Monster Kids taking their inspiration from the same group of grown-up enchanters.   It also probably didn't hurt that each of those adult writers worked closely with Uncle Forry, who was sort of the resident guru for all of those aforementioned pre-teen Horror fans.  This was the world of which John Carpenter formed an integral part.  

"As he grew, John Carpenter continued to find inspiration not only in motion pictures, but on the printed page as well.  He was an avid reader of science fiction and horror stories, and he was exposed to the works of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft through a book entitled Tales of Terror and the Supernatural.  A teenage Carpenter also fueled his imagination on a regular diet of '50s pulps, from Weird Science and Weird Fantasy to the behind-the-scenes magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland.  As he matured, John Carpenter also made a stab at producing his own genre fanzines, devoted to King Kong and the universe of "fantastic" films.  These endeavors established that John Carpenter's talent extended beyond the realms of music and film: He was a skilled artist, and his aptitude for drawing would later serve him well in the story-boarding process of his earliest films, Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, and in part, Halloween (ibid)".

Dark Star
was really Carpenter's first initial foray onto the big screen.  It was his first effort, though it also wasn't really anything like a breakout performance for him.  All that would come later.  In the meantime, all he'd managed to do was make a quirky sci-fi comedy that never really made its own budget back.  However, it did showcase his skill at getting a project off the ground, under a relatively low price tag.  As a result, his name started getting passed around in the industry.  "An investor from Philadelphia, the C.K.K. Corporation, took a gamble on Carpenter and put up the money for a new exploitation picture he was planning.  More importantly to John Carpenter, his backers offered him free rein to make any kind of picture he desired (10)".  The result was Assault on Precinct 13, the very picture we're here to place under the microscope. 

The Story.

The following account is a matter of public record.  The recent events in the Anderson district have come as a great shock to the citizens of South Central Los Angeles.  In response to this local altercation, the L.A. County Police Dept. has received more than enough complaints to make the creation of the following record not just a matter of necessity, but also that of public safety.  Amidst talk of resignations and "reorganization" at certain higher levels of California's law enforcement hierarchy, this account is made with the intent of setting the facts before the reader, in hopes that the following testimony may act as a matter of public service. 

Context: There has been an alarming increase in gangland activity during the past few months.  The greatest level of disturbance has centered in and around the district of Anderson County.  The district itself has fallen on hard times, with a declining economy and local population.  Many of the locals themselves, however, insist that it is the deliberate re-routing and bypassing of any viable trade and commerce by L.A. officials that has allowed their community to stagnate.  When further pressed on the matter, many Anderson residents point to the district's multi-racial makeup as a key reason for why the neighborhood and its citizens are, in their own words, "being kept down".  They further point to this disenfranchisement as the catalyst that has allowed the recent uptick in gangland violence.

After a careful amount of investigation, L.A. authorities were able to determine that the ultimate responsibility for the recent disturbance and skirmishes rests in the hands of the local chapter of a criminal organization known simply as Street Thunder.  The most serious level of violence has often centered in and around the district itself.  This has led investigators to theorize that the gang's main headquarters was centered somewhere in and around the Anderson valley.  It's a hunch that was soon proven correct, as not long after, a reliable tip-off was gained that allowed the LAPD to conclude that a number of Street Thunder members would attempt to steal a valuable and dangerous cache of firearms from a supplier of the neighboring law enforcement offices.  After careful consultation, officers and investigators were authorized to conduct a stakeout on the premises, and wait for the gang to make their move.  It has since been theorized that it was this decision which acted as the trigger for the following events:

Saturday: 2:00 AM.  The L.A. County PD assemble a stakeout composed of local and state police officers, including one riot squad unit, and deploy to a stakeout spot in the Anderson ghetto, acting on a tip that an important robbery would be attempted on one of their district suppliers (Name Withheld).

3:00 AM: Members of the Street Thunder gang break into a local supplier of pistols, rifles, fire arms combat gear, and ammution for California's Police Departments.

3:10: At approximately this time, the thieves walk right into an armed ambush perimeter setup up by law enforcement officials on the scene.  Rather than surrender peacefully, the Street Thunder members first attempted to fight back, discharging their weapons into the assembled police cordon.  When this proved futile, the gang members attempted to flee the scene of the crime.  None of them survived the following exchange of open fire.

By 4:05 in the morning, the crime scene had been given a thorough going-over by the assembled law enforcement authorities.  The suspects were identified, printed, catalogued, and carted off to the local mortuary.  Despite their best efforts, however, the police were unable to locate or identify any information on the persons of the thieves that would help point them towards the gang's hideout.

The following information is based in large part on conjecture.  With hindsight in mind, authorities have now begun to speculate that not long after the altercation between the police and the local Street Gang members, the leadership itself decided to take matters into their own hands, and enact a an extended period of vengeance in response to actions taken by law enforcement in response to the gang's own illegal activity.  The working hypothesis is that all the leaders of the gang swore a blood oath of revenge together, what is known in gangland parlance as a "Cholo".  This blood pact is believed to have been aimed against both the police and citizens of Los Angeles.  This activity is believed to have taken place sometime between 12:00 and 3:00 PM, on Saturday.

4:50 PM: In West Los Angeles, Lt. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker), newly promoted officer in the CHP division, receives his first major assignment for the day.  The Lieutenant is told to report to the Anderson district's 9th precinct station, Division 13.  His job there will be to take charge for the day, and make sure the station's foreclosure goes as smoothly as possible.  All personnel, equipment, and files currently residing in precinct 13 are awaiting transfer and relocation to others districts.

5:11 PM: Police Sgt. Raymond Starker (Charles Cyphers) arrives at the Los Cruces County Penitentiary.  His assignment there is to act as part of a prisoner transport detail.  Their destination: Sonora County Jail, Death Row.  The Warden expressed the opinion that "Carrying a busload of hate is not my idea of "Better than anything".  Traveling under the Sergeant's escort were three prisoners: Geoffrey Wells (Tony Burton), Albert Caudell (Peter Frankland), and Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston).  All three were incarcerated for homicide in the first degree.  However, everyone is of the opinion that Wilson is hands down the worst case offender.  Caudell was known to be suffering from a bad case of pneumonia, contracted while incarcerated.  Wilson was willing to demonstrate both cordial relations, as well as a proven sense of threat.  Because of this, Napoleon had been placed in solitary confinement at the time of Sgt. Starker's arrival.     

5:32 PM: Lt. Bishop is en-route to his assignment at the 13th precinct.  

At approximately 5:37 PM, a Mr. David Lawson is traveling through the Anderson County district.  Mr. Lawson was accompanied by his twelve year old daughter, Kathy (Kim Richards).  Mr. Lawson's sole intent for the day was to help his daughter's best friend and companion move into their own house.  The appointment has not been kept.   

5:49 PM: Lt. Bishop arrives at the 13th precinct, and assumes his command post for the evening.  At the station, he meets the acquaintance of Officers Leigh Brackett (Laurie Zimmer), acting as all-purpose skeleton crew, and Julie Edmundson (Nancy Loomis), on switchboard operator duty.  Sgt. Frank L. Chaney (Henry Brandon) was holding down the front desk.  After some brief consultation, Lt. Bishop assumes command of the Anderson headquarters for the night.

6:18 - 6:41 PM: Mr. Lawson, at the urging of his daughter, stopped to get her an ice cream while he went to make a phone call.  When he'd finished the call, Mr. Lawson returned to find his daughter shot in cold blood, and the vendor lying in the middle of the street.  The car belonging to the perpetrators was seen by Lawson speeding away from the scene of the crime.  The license plate of the vehicle has since been traced to the leadership of the Street Thunder gang.  Mr. Lawson searched under the dash board of the vendor's truck, found a concealed automatic stashed there, and gave chase to the gang leaders.

At or about this same period of time, Sgt. Starker is forced to make an emergency detour in the transport.  One of his prisoner's is sick.  Caudell's pneumonia seems to be worsening, and he is in need of urgent medical attention.  After a brief consultation, the decision is made to make a stop-over at the nearest holding facility.  The closest option is the Anderson precinct.  Sometime at or around 7:00 PM, Starker's escort detail arrives at Anderson Station, and the prisoners are unloaded into the cell block, awaiting further developments.

At 7:00 PM precisely, Mr. Lawson has caught up with the leaders of Street Thunder, just a few blocks away from the precinct station.  He was somehow able to corner the gang leaders in a vacant lot, during which time a violent altercation took place.  In the midst of the scuffle, Mr. Lawson was able to successfully take out one of the gang's leaders.  After this development, Lawson tried phoning for help, however, he soon quickly turned tail and fled, with the remainder of the Street Thunder authorities trailing after him.

Somewhere around 7:15  PM, Mr. David Lawson, terrified and exhausted, stumbled his way into the front desk area of the Anderson police station.  Lawson was too out of breath and speechless to make himself known.  The best Sgt. Chaney was able to get out of him was that "He says there's somebody following him".  Officers Brackett and Edmundson were at their posts.  Sgt Starker, meanwhile, was on the phone, trying to contact any available medical officer to see about Caudell.  While Brackett went to attend to the new arrival, Sgt. Chaney decided to make a brief inspection of the perimeter.  He could see no one outside.  Soon after escorting Lawson to rest in the Captains office, the phone line goes dead in the middle of Starker's call.  When Bishop tries to reach for help on the company switchboard, he can't even manage to find static over the airwaves.

Before Sgt. Starker can decide to leave in disgust, all the power in the station is shut off, leaving everyone in the dark.  Officer Edmundson, however, notes that all the street lights surrounding the facility are all in proper working order.  When Sgt. Chaney decides to call for help on the radio of his patrol car, he is promptly executed, gangland style, on the very steps of the building.  Lt. Bishop then went to investigate and assist, thus barely escaping with his own life back into the relative safety of the station.  "He didn't fall, he was shot".  After careful examination of the crime scene, Lt. Bishop ascertained that the Street Thunder members were lying in wait in trees, bushes, and assorted foliage surrounding the precinct.  Before he could reach them, Sgt. Starker and the police escort were summarily executed by the gang.  Prisoner Caudell, meanwhile, had received critical injuries.  

The two remaining members of the Los Cruces transport party to remain left standing were Wells and Wilson.  After re-locking the two men back in their cells, Bishop made his way back to the main office just in time to see it explode in a ricochet of bullets all around him.  He now found himself short-staffed, with just a handful of officers.  They were outnumbered, all alone, and with a gang of murderous thugs slowly closing in.  The assault on precinct 13 had begun.

Pros and Cons.

In his critical study, The Films of John Carpenter, John Kenneth Muir made an observation laced with a good sense of irony.  "Because John Carpenter was able  to wield total control on the set of his Assault on Precinct 13, as well as pay loving homage to his favorite director without interference, the film has become his favorite, and he often refers to its creation as the most fun he has ever had directing a film (11-2)".  The director Carpenter is trying to homage with his film is none other than Golden Age Hollywood legend, Howard Hawks.  His 1950s Western classic Rio Bravo, it the ultimate inspiration for Precinct 13.  And I think what makes a sentiment like that stand out so well is because of what it has to tell us about the nature of the film, and where its director's headspace was at the time.  It might be the key to unlocking the nature of this early effort.  Before we get to that outlook in particular, perhaps its best to explain what I think works about this movie.  In order to do that, I think it's best if I just take the reader through my initial reactions as they were happening as watched the scenes unfold.

The whole thing seems to start off pretty strong, as far as I could tell.  I guess you could say I qualify as a Carpenter veteran.  The first thing I ever saw from him was, appropriately enough, Halloween.  That was, and remains, a pretty good way to get acquainted with this director and his work.  One of the great things about getting into Carpenter's filmography is the growing realization that he's not just a "one book wonder", in a manner of speaking.  Nor is he just in it for the paycheck.  Unlike a lot of Horror directors in the 80s, Carpenter's own creative ambitions never seemed to have any of the limitations of a Wes Craven or Sean Cunningham.  If you keep on watching his work, it soon becomes apparent that you're dealing with a guy who has this very definite artistic vision going on.  I don't think it's expressed in any single element from one film to the next.  It's a lot more like this total accumulative effect.  Once you add all the pieces together, the great majority of it seems able to form a greater whole. 

This is the operative principle that's happening in all of Carpenter's best efforts.  It's what allows the same powerhouse engine that was driving Halloween to neatly transition into other works, such Big Trouble in Little China, In the Mouth of Madness, or Escape from New York.  Each one of those films displays that same sense of manic intensity that is able grab the viewer from the very first reel, and hold them in its grip until the credits start to roll.  It's what has allowed Carpenter to have his career as it unfolded, and also what has gone on to make him an icon of the Horror genre.  It's to his credit that this same sense of building, slow-burn tension is well on display in Precinct 13's opening movements.  

The camera takes the viewer's hand and then leads us along narrow, constricting corridors as we follow a bunch of armed thieves through a guns 'n ammo factory.  Then the director pulls the rug out from under both characters and viewers as a police warning sounds on a loudspeaker, and the robbers decide to bug the hell out of there.  The camera stays with them, nonetheless, as they make their mad, doomed dash for freedom.  The excitement is brought to a head as shots ring out from above, and the thieves are sent sprawling all over the place, like a collection of bloody human rag dolls.  It has to be one of the most effective openings in cinema history.  It's an exercise in brutal simplicity that could only have been pulled off in an era that wasn't afraid to mimic the kind of ripped-from-the-headlines style  of cinematic violence that typified that 1970s.  By the time its all over, are attention has been engaged, and the audience is left wondering what happens next.

That sense of expectation continues as we transition to the next couple of scenes.  These are showcases for our main cast of characters.  We get to make the acquaintance of just another cop trying to do right, like Bishop.  Or a con with a code, like Wilson.  Each of these establishing moments is handled with the same level of slow-burn intensity that marks out the opening, and it shows the director knows something about how to handle suspense.  We've just opened on a scene of carnage.  Everything we get told in the opening scene is telegraphing to us that this threat has not gone away, and that the two main leads are about to get caught up in it somewhere down the line.  If these opening moments are able to showcase Carpenter's strengths as a director, then what happens at the real inciting moment of the story is also revealing for what it tells us when the director's efforts start to go wrong.

There's one shot in the film that, in retrospect, I'm able to regard as crucial.  It's the scene where a little girl, the daughter of a passing motorist, gets killed in cold blood.  The whole sequence is framed, setup, and executed in a way where you can tell the director means for the final result to come off as a real punch in the gut.  We're meant to be sharing in the father's sense of horrified shock and growing sense of despair.  From there, it's clear Carpenter meant to escalate things, and keep ratcheting the tension on the viewers until they were on the literal edges of their seats, wondering if the good guys would make it out alive.  Those are all lofty creative goals, and to his credit, Carpenter makes them sound decent enough on paper.  

There's just on problem.  When the scene came, I was expecting this grisly, visceral kind of Scorsese style effect, one of those moments when the film goes for the jugular.  Instead, a curious thing happened.  I watched the whole thing unfold, and it all just came off as slightly underwhelming.  To my credit, I knew my response was lukewarm, and had the sense enough to be bothered by it.  In fact, that's sort of what makes the whole scene, and what follows after, troubling in a different sense.  We're meant to be disturbed by what's happening on-screen.  So how come none of that is happening?  Why does it all feel as if the tension is being drained from the room?

All I knew at first was that something started going wrong the minute the film reached its pivitol sequence, the moment everything else was building up to.  Whereas most of the establishing setups were interesting, it seems as if the director dropped some unfilmed key element that should have gone into the inciting action of the story.  This overlooked aspect remains a mystery to me, I'm afraid.  I just get this sense that the scenes with Lawson and his daughter, and the following chaos that it all causes just somehow needed to be handled in a way that helped raise both the stakes and the tension for the audience in a palpably graspable way.  Without it, it's like all the correct pieces are in place, where they should be.  However none of them ever manages to come alive, and the result is a very desultory, slow drag of an affair that just left me impatient and bored.  The faintest idea of what could have worked is to make everything after the ice cream truck sequence a bit faster, with the a greater sense of manic intensity.  Or at least that's as far as I can take my thoughts on the matter.  However it might just be possible to pinpoint the one thing that allowed Carpenter to drop the ball on this occasion.

Let's unpack Muir's words, and see if they can tells us anything about Carpenter's thought process.  If Muir is to be believed, then it seems as if the topmost priority for Carpenter was having what might be called "a proper sense of being in control".  He was able to "take charge", in a way that felt liberating for him.  I can't say right now whether this was in response to executive meddling on other projects, and Muir doesn't elaborate much on this to be of any help.  All he tells us is that Carpenter was a "rebel" who liked to make films his own way.  It's a sort of clarion call that I've heard sounded here and there over the years.  Nor is there anything all that original in the unchanging train of thought that acts as its main support.  It all comes down to a collective ideal of the complete and total freedom of the artist.  It's a concept that I believe you can trace back to the Romantic Movement, though it could also be a lot older than that.  The very idea itself seems to be the remnant, or survival, of a very self-aware artistic age.  With that in mind, perhaps it should be pointed out that there's nothing inherently negative about this concept.  Indeed, there are plenty of reasons for agreeing with necessity for artistic freedom.

The catch comes in when you contrast how this idea is wielded and handled now, compared with its original expression in the thought of writers like Coleridge, Emily Dickinson, or William Blake.  Most of our contemporary artists seem content to assert their artistic freedom, and then just leave it a that.  However, the original Romantic authors (and perhaps even the classical poets and playwrights who came long before them all), were willing to take the thought a step further.  They seem to have grasped the basic fact that Peter Parker would later turn into a general maxim: "With great power, comes great responsibility".  They realized this is the position that any artist with total creative control finds themselves in.  Rather than letting it go to their head, they realized that this level of artistic freedom paradoxically meant that they would have to double down, and discipline themselves if they wanted to bring both their craft and art as close to artistic completion as anyone ever can.  It meant if they caught or felt themselves to be slacking off, they automatically tossed their initial efforts into the wastebasket, and then just picked themselves up, and started all over again from scratch.

It may come off sounding like a lot of unnecessary overkill.  However, if you were a construction worker, and you were dedicated to the job, why on earth would you construct a dwelling that's poorly held together, or otherwise built on an unstable foundation?  It's a pitfall to be avoided, and all the Romantic poets were doing is operating on what is probably just the same principle applied to the realm of aesthetics.  It's a work ethic that the Poets cultivated and refined with great skill, and it was a lesson they seem to have passed on well to their artistic descendants, such as Jane Austen, Steve Spielberg, and even John Carpenter, when he really begins to run in the traces.  The mistake made with Precinct 13, however, is that this is precisely the lesson that the director himself seems to have forgotten to apply.  Instead, it appears a lot more likely that the sense of creative freedom went a bit too much to his head, possibly causing him to lose sight of the need for that particular artistic commitment that would have helped him focus on the creative task at hand, rather than getting lost in all the excitement.  

Basically, rather than staying focused, and channeling his creative energies towards their proper courses, where they belonged, Carpenter allowed his sense of newfound freedom to go to his head.  He was perhaps less inspired more than he was akin to being drunk, or too high on life to notice that the final product doesn't quite fit together the way it should.  As result, the film suffers from a lack of attention and careful crafting.  If at least some kind of further effort had been made in this direction, then we might have gotten a decent, low-budget, thriller flick.  Instead, its an exercise in style, with not much else to back it up.  Even the cheapest looking production can be considered good as long as its story has enough substance to it.  This picture, on the other hand, portrays the opposite problem, the age-old conundrum of style over substance.

Conclusion: A Director Finding His Style.

Let's get one thing straight, none of this was intentional on my part.  I never set out on initial and repeated viewings expecting to come out with such a low opinion as I've got now.  This one took me just as much by surprise as the reader, assuming you've stayed with me this far.  The contrast is made all the more jarring when you stop to examine just how much of a high regard the majority of audiences seem to have  for this film.  Both critics and audiences seem to reach a tie vote in their praise for it.  It currently holds a 7.4 out of 10 rating on IMDB.  To help put that into perspective, when any film manages to get a rating somewhere in the 7 category, that usually means its considered good by a majority in the aisles.  It's also kind of telling once you realize just how difficult it is to climb that particular ladder.  It's very rare for a movie to go all the way up to a perfect 10 on that website.  The great majority of films that are deemed good rarely go beyond the 7 point range, and even then the highest anyone seems to have gotten past that point is somewhere in the nines.  These statistics are enough to qualify Precinct 13 as a success in their book.

On the critical side of things, Carpenter's effort wound up receiving glowing praises upon its release in Great Britain.  Here, for instance, is the contemporaneous reaction from the then director of the London Film Festival: "John Carpenter, whose small-budget science-fiction epic Dark Star was widely acclaimed, has turned his inventive imagination to the thriller for his first solo directional effort. The result, even without taking into consideration his tiny budget and cast of unknowns, is astonishing. Assault on Precinct 13 is one of the most powerful and exciting crime thrillers from a new director in a long time. It grabs hold of the audience and simply doesn't let go as it builds to a crescendo of irrational violence that reflects only too well our fears of unmotivated attack... It is a frightening look at the crumbling of rational ideas of law and order under an irresistible attack by the forces of irrationality and death (web)".

It's a sentiment that is carried over and echoed through the passage of years.  A good example of this critical consistency is demonstrated by the views expressed in a 1999 retrospective from Premiere magazine: "A trim, grim, vicious, and incredibly effective action movie with no cut comic-relief bit players, no winks at the audience, and no stars. Just a powder keg of a premise (lifted in part from Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo), in which a quasi-terrorist group's killing spree culminates in the action described in the title. Carpenter's mastery of wide-screen and almost uncanny talent at crafting suspense and action sequences make Assault such a nerve-racking experience that you may have to reupholster your easy chair after watching it at home (web)"  The one that sticks out the most, however, has got to be an old New York Times review from Vincent Canby.  In it, he makes a very jarring claim.  

"[Assault] is a much more complex film than Mr. Carpenter's 'Halloween,' though it's not really about anything more complicated than a scare down the spine.  A lot of its eerie power comes from the kind of unexplained, almost supernatural events one expects to find in a horror movie but not in a melodrama of this sort … If the movie is really about anything at all, it's about methods of urban warfare and defense.  Mr. Carpenter is an extremely resourceful director whose ability to construct films entirely out of action and movement suggests that he may one day be a director to rank with Don Siegal (web)".

Here comes the part where I really can't speak for others.  The reason for that is pretty simple: mileages always vary.  All I can do in that case is record my own reaction to Canby's words.  It's the kind of the situation where all you can do is to sort of stare in disbelief, and maybe wonder if there hasn't been a misprint somewhere.  Perhaps now is as good a time as any to clarify one's words.  Less than a second ago, I made the observation that the mileage of the reader is always varying.  It's a simple enough fact of life, however I also believe it does nothing to negate a related point of observation.  This is the equally inescapable reality that certain stories, meaning any number of significant books or films, are able to gain their established classics status because its the quality of the writing that allows them to achieve such a level.  They have achieved an objective standard of value.  That is most definitely the case with a film like Halloween.  I'm afraid the same cannot be said for Assault on Precinct 13.  If the former stands as the director's best effort, the latter is a more curious, much less successful type of beast.  

I think the ultimate flaw the film had to deal with is that it was in the hands of an artist who was still trying to find his proper footing as a storyteller.  When you watch the film, two things stand out.  The first is that it's pretty clear enough that what you've got on your hands is someone who amounts to being a genuine talent.  It's also painfully obvious that he's still somewhat green behind the ears.  He has the notion of a good idea for a story, the issue is that for some reason, probably from some leftover level of inexperience, he's just having difficulty grasping it in its entirety.  As a result, it's no real wonder if the film ultimately flounders once all the plot elements come together in the final act.  There's this sense that something more was needed to help tie it all together.  Maybe the assault itself should have been staged differently, or perhaps room should have been made for whatever character development would have been necessary to give the stakes a proper sense of weight.  Whatever the solution here was supposed to be, it's clear that Carpenter probably wasn't seasoned enough at the time to tackle the problem.

The result is a film that struggles in the hands of a remnant novice.  The good news for Carpenter is that time would prove he didn't have to stay that way.  As someone told me not long ago, he was working the bugs out of the system on this one.  He wouldn't really hit his stride, and find his own strengths as a storyteller until he got to Halloween.  That's the film which acts as a neat and concise catalogue for all of Carpenter's strong points, as well as detailing the way he seems most comfortable with telling a story.  At his best, Carpenter appears to be an expert of the slow-burn approach to ratcheting up the suspense on the viewer.  His chief approach seems to be to introduce a clear and palpable element of menace, and then just let it linger there in the background.  It's a creative strategy that is so simple it's not surprising to learn that most criticism of the film never bothers to comment on it all that much, except for the occasional, vague, gesture in its general direction.  Nor is the technique original with Carpenter.  

I'm pretty sure he's acknowledged that it all comes from Hitchcock.  The idea being that if a bomb goes off without warning, the result is a mere, momentary shock to the system.  However, if the audience is shown that there is a bomb in the room, then they become worried about if it will go off, or not.  That, Hitchcock liked to point out, was the difference between shock and legitimate, artistic suspense.  It's an idea that Carpenter took to heart, and over the time, he became something of a master craftsman at it.  It could just be argued that he's the one who took Hitchcock's idea and helped to perfect it to its highest form of expression.  All that came later, however.  At the time of his second movie, it really does look like he was still stuck trying to experiment with the form, and not quite reaching the expression he desired.  I guess that means its not that much of a head-scratcher as to why Assault on Precinct 13 winds up as something of a mixed bag.  I think the best advice I've got for anyone curious about it is to go into it with the mindset that you're about to see an example of the director in embryo form

He's managed to stumble on the possibility of a goldmine, however, right now he's still picking away at the entrance walls of the mine, and not getting as much of a useful vein as he probably knows is possible on some level.  The result is much more of an interesting exercise in technique more than it is a completed movie.  And yet maybe it's just possible to laud the film on just such a technical level.  Even if that's the case, though, movies are always about telling a good story in the end.  On that score, the best efforts of John Carpenter were still just around the corner.  That, however, is another story.


  1. Sheesh, it's been too long since I've seen this one, I guess. A lot of this sounds great and I'm trying to square it with my positive yet not quite gushing memory of the film. I watched it not too long ago - well, so it feels, but I guess it's been practically 20 years now that I do the math. Sheesh! Okay, so let me watch it again and come back to this one.

  2. That book by John Kenneth Muir is really good. I should reread it!

    It's been five years or so since the last time I watched this one, but I'd say I'm a bigger fan than you. I don't necessarily think it's one of his best films, but I do think it's one of the purer expressions of his style. It works for me even in the moments when it isn't working well, which sounds (and probably is) weird, but is nevertheless true for me.

    As you say, though, mileages vary!

    1. I suppose that really is true. The sad news is how none of my final reactions was intentional on my part.


    2. There's one more thing I forgot to mention. The one positive of the film I can think of is that it really does foreshadow what was to come in the future.

      In other words, the whole setup of "Precinct" is such that you can kind of see what might be called the Carpenter tropes taking their first shape. Lawson, for instance, is a clear, early prototype of the character who would eventually morph into Snake Plisskin, while one of the girls could be almost be said to prefigure Laurie Strode. Likewise, Bishop could almost be the first instance of later characters like Macready, Nada, and/or Frank Armitage.

      In that sense, what the film really is, in my opinion, is a filmed example of the director getting his ducks in a row. It's an assemblage of all the tropes and themes he will be exploring to much greater effect further on down the road.