Sunday, April 22, 2012

Ten Statements About....ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)

One of the most important shots--both figurative and literal--
in a film that establishes that No One Is Safe....
"What does it mean?"
"It means they don't care. They're not afraid to die, any of them. They want to rip us apart no matter what the cost. It the death."

1) You know, I've said this before, but it needs to be said again--nothing, but nothing sounds like a John Carpenter soundtrack. From the moment the martial strains of the theme starts over the black screen, you know whose territory you're in.

2) I like how Carpenter, through the way he introduces the little girl only to have her casually shot dead, makes it very clear that no one is safe--a message further reinforced when both Starker and Julie die during the course of the film.

3) Now,'s how you set up an intriguing anti-hero. We never learn much about Napoleon Wilson outside of maybe his crime and the fact that he's a Real Big Figure when it comes to law enforcement. But then...we don't need to know much. Thanks to Darwin Josten's performance, we know everything we need to know--that he's got a code of honor, that he's level headed, that he respects people who give him respect. And that makes us willing to root for him when the siege happens.

4) I know that this is an unofficial remake of Rio Bravo--something Carpenter does variations on several times throughout his career--but I have to also wonder if Carpenter was influenced mightily by George Romero. There are a number of moments that mirror Night of The Living Dead, and the way the marauding bands are shot sort of slipping in and out of shadows makes them seem like zombies.

These three people have been through Hell...and only
John Carpenter knows their full backstory....
5) I give much respect to Carpenter for being able to recognize when the film benefits from being quiet. There are long stretches of this film that occur in total or near silence, and those stretches help to increase the tension, while allowing him to continue building up his characters and getting us to give them our sympathy.

6) However, something I do think muddles the waters is the opening battle between the cops and the Street Thunder Gang. An argument could be made that the film could be streamlined a bit, making the death of the little girl collateral damage in a drive-by or similar crime and sidestepping that battle completely. That would also make the situation a little more 'personal,' as the choice to give aid to the girl's father would prompt the gang to focus on this place.

7) The whole idea of establishing that this is a precinct that's being closed down, that will have its utilities cut in the morning, is very clever on a number of levels. For one, it gives us a reason why most of the action takes place in near darkness--which allows Carpenter to save on special effects at points. For another, it gives the exterior an air of normalacy that the mostly faceless, silent throng can use to their advantage. And it also emphasizes the isolation of our heroes--while also gleefully shoring up the horror movie ambiance that this film has. It's no wonder Irwin Yalbans saw this and realized Carpenter would be perfect for his Babysitter Murders project.
They may be convicts heading for Death's Row...but they
are heroes in one sense or another....

8) Some words should be said about Laurie Zimmer's Leigh. What impresses me about her is how she's competent, but in no ways a super woman--and the fact that she has a chemistry with both Josten and Austin Stoker's Bishop shores up her own character. And the fact that romantic interest is implied by never paid off on...well, there are some directors who can learn from Carpenter's handling of this.

9) And I'm going to make it clear--I respect that the moments of comic relief (the two cops searching for all this carnage to increasing frustration; the way Wilson and Wells resolve who has to risk their lives, etc.) are funny but also fraught with a touch of unease so that the increasing tension of the scenario is not disrupted.

10) I respect the fact that just as Carpenter spent some time thinking through the scenario, he spent some time showing through their actions that these gang members are not idiots. And because they're not idiots, the heroes are raised up in our eyes since they have to struggle to outlast them.

Overall...a clever little actioner that shows a lot of what made John Carpenter the mega-super-star he was in the late 70's and early 80's, a film that can be looked at as a blueprint for future films in his ouvre.

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