I went through an enjoyable spate of watching early John Carpenter movies. Dark Star is an endearing ultra-low budget movie which highlights the emerging talent of Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon and will likely always have a place in college sci-fi film festivals. But it’s too unpolished and uneven for me to recommend. In contrast, his next movie, made in 1976 with a larger (if still small in absolute terms) budget, is taut, thrilling, and well-acted from end to end: Assault on Precinct 13.
The spare plot is a stripped-down of version of Rio Bravo, with 40% less running time and a focus on action more than the relationships between the characters (Carpenter is clearly a fan of the legendary Howard Hawks, echoing him here as well as in The Thing). Highway Patrol Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is given the ostensibly ho-hum assignment of overseeing the closure of a near-abandoned police station. But of course it couldn’t be that easy: a vicious, well-armed street gang converges on the station to avenge the killing of some of their members by the police as well as by an enraged civilian whose family they victimized. After the gang’s initial assault kills the few remaining police officers, Stoker can only rely on a worldly secretary (Laurie Zimmer) and two prisoners (Darwin Joston and Tony Burton) to hold off the horde. Superb action and suspense follow.
Carpenter boils everything down to the essentials here: the desperate human will to survive, how danger can draw out courage in some and fear in others, and how shared risks can make enemies learn to trust each other. He matches that thematic simplicity with a no-nonsense visual style and fat-free storytelling. And he draws effective performances from his no name cast, further attesting to his talents as a director.
The excruciating tension of the siege on the station comes in part from the zombie-like nature of the gang members (Indeed, Carpenter has acknowledged the influence of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead on his script). The gang members barely speak in this movie, being a mindless, remorseless, deadly mob akin to those Carpenter summoned up so well in The Fog, Ghosts of Mars, and They Live. Their intended victims, like the audience, want to know why the villains are they way they are, but there is no sensible or reassuring answer: they want to kill, they will not stop, and that is all.
Carpenter really did it all here, writing a tight script with solid dialogue, crisp plot lines and some moments of black humor (including the now legendary “ice cream” scene). His characters aren’t well-developed, but are real enough so that you root for them. Also worthy of comment: Carpenter made an intriguing and I think productive decision to bend reality by making the street gang multi-racial, as are the defenders of precinct 13, thus avoiding what might have been ugly overtones if the dueling sides had been racially monotone. He also composed one of his best scores and even, under the stage name John T. Chance (John Wayne’s character in Rio Bravo) did the editing, which not incidentally is terrific, particularly in the actions scenes. Like Roger Corman, Carpenter was underappreciated for many years before being recognized as a masterful filmmaker. Assault on Precinct 13 shows that his talent was evident from the earliest days of his career.
p.s. I didn’t see the 2005 remake of this film and based on reviews I don’t want to.