Dir.: John Carpenter
Starring: Darwin Jonston, Austin Stoker and Laurie Zimmer
Assault On Precinct 13 was not John Carpenter’s first film, but in many ways it serves as the blueprint of techniques, themes and story-telling that would become synonymous with the man’s career to come with a huge serving of exploitation to keep you on edge. Gotta love the 1970s, kids!
A siege story that takes place in the bowels of Los Angeles where structural decay, violence and social degeneration run rampant. it is a incredibly fundamental position in terms of plot, but this simplicity works flawlessly. While restrained by time and budgetary issues, Carpenter and company unfurl a tense, menacing tale of what could be the night from Hell by using every available resource they can grasp and molding it to serve the purpose of the story and the characters involved.
The heroes are not typical according to popular trope; Ethan Bishop is weary yet a dignified and humane officer of the law, cool as a cucumber criminal Napoleon Wilson is incredibly laid-back while still ready to leap into action if needed and the lead female character of Leigh is anything but a screaming damsel, who despite insurmountable odds stands side to side with her male compatriots. The villains meanwhile are emotionless, persistent forces of nature who will stop at nothing to get their due and the situation while heightened, is almost realistically bleak and hopeless.
Additionally, despite the obvious threat of the blood-thirsty posse on the outside, some of the more interesting elements of tension come from between the ‘good guys’, namely from the head officer of the precinct who obviously maintains a sense of racial prejudice toward Bishop. While the movie does not make it a point to heavily comment the aspect of racial identity and discrimination (after all, this film was almost a decade removed from the tail-end of the Civil Rights movement), there is no disputing that sometimes the greater enemy is the one within be it based on a sense of hatred or impulsive assumption.
Accompanied by the obvious homages to Carpenter’s favourite films and filmmakers of the past is the distinctive, eerie synthesizer score that lets you know there is a down and dirty war brewing between these two factions and the only side left standing are the ones who are strong enough to survive. While not backed up by the luxury of bountiful bank, Carpenter more than made up for in prudence and persistence and this ingenuity shows in the final product.
While his finest hour was yet to come, this was a fine starting point for a young Carpenter to show just what he could do.
Correction: I was either possessed by incompetence or a demon by this mix-up. Austin Stoker featured in blaxploitation cinema and Darwin Jonston was Carpenter’s neighbor. My apologies.