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Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Assault on Precinct 13 was John Carpenter's first foray into professional filmmaking, and although today it is arguably remembered largely as an urban siege thriller and an homage to the westerns of Howard Hawks, there is also a nod to a classic horror film, as well some weird and ambiguous elements that point to the direction Carpenter was to take with his future work.
Although not a straight remake, the plot owes a lot to the film Rio Bravo, in which John Wayne plays a sheriff who has to keep a bad guy in jail over several days, fending off his cronies with only an elderly crippled man, a drunk, and an inexperienced young gunslinger to help. In Assault on Precinct 13, Lieutenant Austin Stoker is in charge of a run down LA police station the day before it is due to be closed. The building comes under siege from a street gang who are after a man who saw them kill his daughter and is now hiding inside. With no telephone or electricity and only two secretaries and a death row inmate to help, Stoker must defend the station against the relentless assault - but no matter how many gang members he kills, more keep coming to take their place...
Looked at purely as a suspense film, Assault on Precinct 13 is a definite success, and a remarkably confident debut considering the lack of experience behind the camera. This is very much Carpenter's movie because, due to budgetary restrictions, as well as directing, he wrote the screenplay, edited the finished footage, and wrote and performed the music, and all of these elements come together to make it a success.
Following a brief, noisy and violent gun battle between a group of gang members and a police SWAT team at the start of the film, the first half settles down to a slow and deliberate pace, both in terms of story and editing. There are three seemingly disparate plot elements that are vital to the story: the closing of the Police Station, a man watching helplessly as a street gang gun down his young daughter, and the fate of Napoleon Wilson, a convicted killer on his way to execution, and all of these are given time to establish their situations before gradually getting woven together. The main advantage of this approach is that it means that we get to know the two main characters, Stoker and Wilson, before they get into peril, making it easier to care about them, and whether they survive, when the siege begins.
The pacing of the story is matched by the pacing of the editing, with the opening half dominated by long takes and little cutting, although, like many aspects of the movie, this was done for budgetary rather than artistic reasons, as Carpenter lacked the time and money to shoot much in the way of cutaways and covering shots. Nevertheless, it perfectly matches and complements the steady pacing of the screenplay. Carpenter has acknowledged that, beyond the specific Rio Bravo influences, this slower way of doing things is a more general throwback to an older style of filmmaking, particularly the Westerns of his youthi.
However, once the siege kicks off, the tempo of the film increases significantly, creating a great contrast to what has gone previously. The gun battles are edited tightly, showing that Carpenter was not just stuck in the past, but able to blend an old fashioned approach with more contemporary techniques.
The music score throughout is bleak and minimalist, and, although this may again be partly down to Carpenter not having the time or money to create anything complicated, it suits the steady pacing of the film perfectly. Its overall effect is reminiscent of Ennio Morricone scores in Spaghetti Westerns with long high pitched notes that slowly but surely help ratchet up the tension.
However, Western influences aside, Assault on Precinct 13 owes just as much to George Romero's original Night of the Living Dead, something readily acknowledged by Carpenterii. Both films have a grim overall tone, with some bloody and shocking plot twists, and the situations involve ordinary people, rather than superheroes or John Wayne style tough guys, under siege in a single location, leading to plenty of bickering and tension between the characters.
There is another more subtle nod to the original Night of the Living Dead however, one which really makes watching this film an, at times, weird and disorientating experience. It revolves around the gang members themselves and the way they are presented. Just like the undead in Romero's film, they have no names, no dialogue, display no emotions, and when, during the siege, one is gunned down, another lumbers behind to take his place, followed relentlessly by more and more of them. The perpetual silence and zombie-like indifference to pain and injury is established from the beginning. The first time we are properly introduced to them is a scene with four gang members sat around a table cutting their arms and taking a blood oath and not one of them flinches or makes a sound. There is a wonderful ambiguity to all of this, as at no point is it explicitly stated that they are in any way supernatural and that the film is set anywhere but the real, material world. But at certain points, such as the scene where the gang very quickly clear up a pile of dead bodies and blood to disguise what has happened, you are left scratching your head, asking "How did they DO that?" This sort of haziness, leaving unresolved questions in the mind of the viewer would be further explored in Halloween with the character of Michael Myers, who, while never meant to be a supernatural being, does do some pretty hard to explain things.
Assault on Precinct 13 has plenty to recommend on its own merits as a lean, tense, shocking, and creepy movie, but it is also essential viewing for anyone tracing the evolution of the career and craft of John Carpenter. This film is an extremely important milestone, in that it taught Carpenter that he could shoot cheaply and quickly, that he could keep the story simple, and he could introduce weird ambiguous elements while still keeping things grounded in reality - all of which set him up nicely for his next film - Halloween.