You only need to take a walk down the street to see that modern society is collapsing. Muggers, burglars, thieves of all kinds roam the city looking for action. Guns can be bought for as little as five pounds a shot; knives are rapidly ousting mobile phones as THE thing to be seen with. Every day, the news shows images of newfangled “binge drinkers” and obese people causing havoc in the city centres. Leave your car alone for more than a few minutes, and if it doesn’t get stolen, then someone’s at least gonna make off with the wheel trims. On nearly every corner prostitutes brazenly sells their wares – on the ones that are left, dealers offer a wide selection of uppers, downers and mindblowers. If only we could rely on the police, but today’s cops are most likely to be found relaxing in a squad car, tucking into coffee and doughnuts – or rather, in Britain, Mr. Kipling’s Apple Pies.
But what would we do without the police? We can complain as much as we like, but without them, society would descend into total anarchy. We rely on the police, we need them to keep us safe. No-one can beat the police. What would happen though if someone did fuck the police, to usurp society’s babysitters from their fluffy thrones? What then? John Carpenter takes a terrifying look into the future in Assault on Precinct 13.
A street gang seeks revenge for a police ambush that left several of their members dead. Meanwhile, a local police precinct is closing its doors for the last time and, on top of this, a bus transporting three dangerous criminals needs to stop somewhere when one of its charges becomes ill. Add it all together and what to you get? A right fucking mess! Within just a couple of hours of taking over, Lt. Bishop (Austin Stoker) has three death-row psychos on his hands, and a bunch of gangsta fashion victims hiding outside, laying siege to the place!
Halloween is probably the most important movie in John Carpenter’s career – released two years earlier, Assault On Precinct 13 is often, today, overshadowed by that, a great pity as it’s a truly fantastic film. Carpenter certainly knows how to play with his audience – he manages to supply the shocks that similar movies just can’t. Early on in the film we get to know a young girl and her father – it’s so obvious he’s about to get shot, leaving her alone in the ghetto. So seeing her so coldy blown away by one of the “crazy young bastards”, and so early in the film too, is pretty horrifying. When prisoner Wells makes his escape from the precinct in a stolen car, we all know he’s gonna die. The gangstas will be waiting in the road for him, they’re gonna mow him down – we don’t expect one of them to silently pop up from the back seat and put a bullet in his brain!
Assault on Precinct 13 is also a bloody scary movie too. Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs runs along a similar premise, but the idea of people being besieged in their own home (OK, so it’s not actually theirs, but the insinuation is the same), that sacred, private place, is more personal and perverse, an almost sexual thing. Violation. When it’s over, you can always go running to the police. But if even the cops, the final wall between a law-abiding society and absolute chaos, can’t fight back, who the hell can? Add to this the sheer nihilism of some crazy street punks randomly shedding blood for pleasure rather than money, and you can see why all hope is surely lost!
Unlike many of his contemporaries (Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven, for example), John Carpenter is one of the few directors of the seventies who has managed to keep a (relatively) consistent output. Assault On Precinct 13 is not a perfect film (my own personal beef is Napoleon Wilson’s (Darwin Joston) repetitive catchphrase, “Got a smoke?” It becomes very, very tedious surprisingly quickly), but it is a good indication of what was to come from the future director of Halloween, The Fog, Escape From New York and, of course, The Thing. With such fine direction, acting and music, the idea of a remake seems even more offensive than usual. Take my advice, watch this instead.
Skillful American writer-director of supense movies, often in the science fiction or horror genres. Comedy Dark Star and thriller Assault on Precinct 13 were low budget favourites, but mega-hit Halloween kick-started the slasher boom and Carpenter never looked back.