The next time someone tries to sell you the idea that John Carpenter is simply a horror director, point them in the general direction of his CV. One glance can reveal that the veritable maestro of 70’s thrills has been way more indebted to pulp aesthetics, applying them to just about every genre you can name. Carpenter’s 1974 debut Dark Star foreshadows his success with other sci-fi flicks like The Thing, but Assault on Precinct 13 is where the Carpenter we love fleshed out his vibe.
Like most Carpenter films, Assault on Precinct 13 is a classic in its own right setting a standard for character-driven action films. Taking the stand-off element of The Alamo and updating it in the ultraviolent political climate of 70s LA. Carpenter delivers the police thriller twin to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, knowingly positioning the superb Austin Stoker as lead in a film which could have had a messy message otherwise. Darwin Joston aces it, playing cool-as-a-refrigerated-cucumber death row inmate Napoleon Wilson, whilst Carpenter regulars Nancy Loomis and Charles Cyphers provide nice support. It’s a great band of talent.
The characters are sharp, the action is ace, there’s guns galore and some knives to boot, not to mention Carpenter’s best soundtrack- yes, better than Halloween or Escape from New York. More than anything, its slickly put together and shows up many of its contemporaries by being consummately gorgeous, but undebatably gritty. It’s a cool film about unlikely people being put shoulder-to-shoulder against an insane vengeful underbelly in a town ready to explode. But its also a film which takes 50s stars (Henry Brandon and Martin West) and forces them to work with new talent making it as much about Hollywood as it is about class struggles and the 70s LA zeitgeist. So in many ways, even with its now-infamous child-death, the film remains virulently hopeful, if darkly comic.
Carpenter’s films, if stacked atop one another, pretty much define B-Movie, or cult cinema. Think about his CV: an immortal killer stalks suburbia, a killer fog carries zombie pirates into a small seaside town, black magic and Kung-fu rule the streets of Chinatown, a shape-shifting alien savagely tears through an artic base attempting to replicate the human body. Time after time Carpenter has pulled a preposterous concept out of thin air and spun gold, his talents only waning when he tried to go straight (The Ward). But for a true Carpenter pulp experience, minus the camp overtones of his 80’s exploits, you’d be hard pressed to find anything more complete than 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13. Its probably Carpenter’s coolest film.
Dir. John Carpenter
Stars: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Charles Cyphers, Nancy Loomis