Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

Assault on Precinct 13 opens with a massacre. As six armed members of a street gang creep through a ghetto, they are suddenly ambushed and gunned down from above by LAPD officers as they flee from officers, none of them so much as raising their weapons. The victims are flying, collapsing bodies, spattered in red, lying in the yellow lights of an LA night; the cops’ faces are unseen, the frame dominated by their hands and shotguns. The scene dissolves to a serene pan across a tranquil LA suburb, as a radio press conference plays where a police commissioner justifies these actions as a necessary retaliation to an epidemic of gang violence. It’s a bold expression of cold-blooded brutality, a gritty, brutally direct piece of low-budget genre filmmaking that sets up the audience for both bloodshed and moral gray areas. As it turns out, writer-director-editor John Carpenter, here helming his second feature film, only really gave a damn about the bloodshed.

Which is fine by me, kind of.I haven’t got any major moral qualms with indulging in some exaggerated fantasy killing, but that’s not what the opening presents or promises. Either Carpenter wasn’t aware of its implications, or he was knowingly writing cheques that he couldn’t and wouldn’t cash as a sensational attention-grabber. Given that he was about to go on a tear of genre filmmaking that would define the transition between the New Hollywood of the 70s and the high-concept formulations of the 80s, I’m inclined to give him the benefit of a doubt. That leaves us with a John Carpenter who was still making mistakes, who still didn’t quite understand how to take an audience where he wanted them to go.

Still, though the soon-to-be horrormeister hadn’t yet parlayed his gifts for stylized violence into straight shots of terror, there’s no denying the forcefulness of this or any other moment in Assault on Precinct 13, which to its credit lays out an uncomplicated schema (first half set-up, second half siege) and pays off on it. The setup: newly promoted police lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is assigned to the all-but-empty Precinct 9, Division 13 on the final night of its decommissioning. A group of convicts, most notorious among them the death row-bound killer Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), are transported on a long trip by bus, but a sick prisoner forces a brief layover in LA — at Precinct 9, Division 13. A member of the street gang from the opening scene shoots and kills a 12-year-old girl, Kathy Lawson (Kim Richards, whose graphic death is a crazily ill-advised shock scene that nullifies much of the building tension), and the girl’s father (Martin West) chases the gang car down, shoots Kathy’s killer, and then flees into the police station with an ever-increasing number of gang members in pursuit. Through what the charitable would call “chance” but I’d probably call “contrivance,” all these parties have wound up at what just happens to be the least defensible location in all of Los Angeles on its least defensible night — minimally staffed, loaded with windows and entrances, surrounded by empty road and unoccupied houses for hundreds of yards. The street gang of the opening, who are randomly murderous, indifferent to pain and death, and apparently have dozens and dozens of totally expendable members, lay siege to Precinct 9 (there is no Precinct 13, which I forgive because the title was conceived in post and is really cool).

So for all the meticulous, carefully sketched out plotting undertaken to get to the assault on Precinct, uh, 9 — and boy, the first half takes its sweet time with that — the whole scenario winds up feeling forced and unbelievable, and this is a critical if partially forgivable flaw, because it’s important that everything in a zombie drama feel plausible except the zombies.

Let’s back up a moment. Assault on Precinct 13 is distinctly the work of a fairly green feature director who is absolutely gaga about genre filmmaking, partly due to nods to other films and directors: one character describes a childhood story lifted directly from Alfred Hitchcock’s biography, another makes dialogue references to Once Upon a Time in the West (“Something to do with death” and a promise to reveal a secret at the “moment of dying” are uttered within seconds of each other). But most importantly, Assault on Precinct 13 is a mash-up of Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead set in modern-day LA, borrowing the committed police defending a prison and building camaraderie from the former, and the teeming, mindless, unexplained horde laying siege to a building from the latter. There is much to compare between Assault and those forebears, but those observations are well-trod ground that don’t take much work to spot; let’s just say that the archetypes and story mechanics are more or less what you’d expect from a cross between a western and a zombie movie (with a few specifics drawn from both Romero and Hawks) and leave it at that.

The comparison is an important one, though, because the structural influence of those films is a major asset. It’s not that the film is a well told variation of those stories — at a script level, Assault on Precinct 13 is at best serviceable, and not a particularly interesting new spin on its sources — but because their iconic sturdiness gives Carpenter more room to take risks as a stylist. Where his first film Dark Star’s shoestring effects and parody seem to constrict Carpenter’s incredible skill with building moods, the more focused story and looser production of Assault gives Carpenter the room to create the mood that would make him a star of genre filmmaking.

If you’ve seen a Carpenter horror film from the 70s or 80s, you probably have an idea of what I’m talking about, though can be difficult to describe (beyond a sense of dread and the wavering clicks and synthesizers of the soundtrack). Difficult, I think, because it is a purposefully elusive mood; Carpenter’s best genre exercises carefully define a scenario and the geography of the space it takes place in, and then subvert both with frenetic suspense and an irrational and mysterious threat of violence. And then he puts clicks and synth beats over it.

It’s a delicate balancing act, unsettling an audience’s understanding of the rules of the diegesis without betraying it, and all it takes is a quick survey of the countless Halloween clones and sequels to see that it’s a talent and tone very specific to one director. Nobody else can do it. Even John Carpenter usually can’t do it.

Here, he comes close, but he doesn’t do it. A few of his tricks are here; each space’s geography is laid out with slow, exacting detail — Bishop gets out of his car, looks forward, looks left, looks right, reverse shows what’s behind him as he heads in — and then when the action starts, that geography becomes almost totally unimportant as the action boils down to little more than the siege survivors standing at doors shooting at the hordes trying to climb in. But this neat dichotomy plays less as a subversion of expectations and more as a squandered opportunity for pay-offs.

Nonetheless, it does come close. In his commentary track for the film, Carpenter laments that he should have sped up the first half. He’s right and he’s wrong: it’s true that the characters and plotting aren’t well-built enough to stand up to the scrutiny permitted by such a crawling pace, but the distension of suspense and forestalling of violence is one of the best things the movie has going for it. When the assault does start, the bodies pile up so fast that Carpenter just about pulls off the sense of illogical, displaced terror that he so famously perfected one year later with the career-defining Halloween. The editing, which is plodding and almost totally momentum-free in all but the most hectic action, doesn’t help, but there are other mitigating factors in play as well.

Much of the problem lies with the gang, who register as a little too human to really work the audience’s fear of the irrational — they have distinct looks and clothes and, one can surmise, origins, even if their personalities are all the same register of psychopathy — that Carpenter always drew out with his least definable antagonists (“The Shape,” “The Fog,” “The Thing”). Even more of the problem lies with the cops and criminals defending the precinct, who don’t register as human enough. Performances in Assault on Precinct 13 are inconsistent or downright wooden more often than not (this is especially disappointing for Stoker’s work as the blandly heroic Bishop, one of the only black leads in a non-blaxploitation 70s action movie), which makes the bond-setting between the beleaguered station’s defenders a practical non-asset. Thankfully, there’s much to enjoy in Darwin Joston’s turn as Napoleon, the first and last (co-)lead in a career of bit parts, a blithe smart-ass of a character with a noir-ish pathos about him that makes him the best character in a walk.

Nonetheless, Carpenter’s personality is plain to see, and certainly has its moments, chief among them a brief, desperate scramble to break a shotgun out of a locked box before three gang members break down the door. That goes a long way with me, even if it's hard not to think ahead to the unvarnished white-knuckling as near as his next film, and his eventual mastery of the mechanics of an unnatural siege six years later with The Thing (a film I love so dearly that it’s difficult for me to contain that love to this parenthetical). Seeing an artistic personality all-but-fully-formed is invigorating in itself, but Assault on Precinct 13 is admirable more in bits and pieces than as a whole.


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