In honor of the release of Jeremy Saulnier’s punks vs. neo-nazis closed-casket thriller, let us look back at the obvious spiritual predecessor, celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year.
John Carpenter’s toolkit would dilate and wax over time, but he is one of the few filmmakers whose proclivities and talents pollinated most fully when he was given almost nothing to work with but his imagination and the nightmares of the public around him. His Lewtonesque management of silent wells and piercing crests of punctuating sound as well as his pliant awareness of how to transform the most elusive of visuals into a suggestible font of unmitigated horror were almost unparalleled during his heyday throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. Although his style would be perfected in Halloween and The Thing, his apocalyptic form, less feeding frenzy of horror than icy stillwater, was already deeply entrenched with his second feature, 1976’s deliciously uncouth Assault on Precinct 13, one of the finest exploitation films ever released.
Instigated by a ruthlessly blunt child murder in front of an ice cream truck (a scene that almost resulted in the film’s banning), Carpenter’s cold-blooded, serpentine bass guitar riff on Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo jettisons that film’s laconic warmth for a growling torpor and distinctly New Hollywood gutterpunk vision of urban life as veritable existential limbo. When the girl’s father kills the warlord of the gang who fell his daughter, the gang tracks him to the nearly decommissioned police precinct 13, operated like a ghost town by a skeletal crew headed by African-American Lt. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker). Other notables among the besieged include white death row inmate Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) and quintessentially Hawksian woman Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) all of whom must work together to survive the night.
Excised of anything even suggesting a rumor of tangent, Assault is one of Carpenter’s most merciless films at a catgut 91 minutes. There’s a vicious, slowly encroaching disquiet more akin to Night of the Living Dead than anything Hawks ever made, with the interracial gang (with four leaders, each of a different race) reflecting an almost abstract hypothesis of urban squalor unleashed upon the world, upending traditional conceptions of officer of the law and criminal as the two are forced to work together, however tentatively their wills are in the process. The gang plays out more as a void than a knowable, physical presence, always photographed behind a viscous swamp of shadow and distance as they encircle the precinct like … well, vultures would imply too much carnal desire on their part. Their movements are more reflex-oriented, disaffected, passionless, and mechanical, like the city’s supernatural pseudopod outgrowing the geometry of the buildings and reclaiming itself from humanity.
Racially, Assault on Precinct 13 treads on unsure ground, at once inverting the dominant police-criminal racial dichotomy of cinema at the time and invoking a certain vision of a unified racial beast lashing out at respectable society, a blitzkrieg that can only be combated by another racial unity on Bishop and Wilson’s part. It’s not exactly progressive or regressive with regard to issues of representation, but this is also because the film relies on race only as a diving board into muddier questions of intercommunal cooperation and the ties and demarcations of representational identity existing as malleable tributaries that fracture and reform uneasily depending on circumstance.
Certainly, it could be said that Assault on Precinct 13 expresses a vision of youthful indiscretion coalescing into an unstoppable, implacable nightmarish force, thus depicting if not necessarily supporting middlebrow society’s percolating-in-the-‘70s worry that racial and class unrest would coalesce into a unionized post-racial wave of youthful subterfuge doing away with the rules their parents had entrenched. Admittedly, part of Carpenter’s desire to depict the gang as an indefinable, interracial group was to bat away surface-level racial readings, with Carpenter preferring the film to function as effectively to an audience with no knowledge of racial relations in the US.
No political statement is a political statement, of course, with the film’s vision of gang-as-other undoubtedly leaning crypto-conservative, both pining for and rejecting interracial forces simultaneously. It’s a beguiling social mixture then, less a commentary on race or class than a confused, contradictory embodiment of the heading-every-way desires and fears in the ‘70s. Racial progressivism cracks heads with trepidation about inner-city desecration, the film ultimately seeking less to lay blame on any party than to lay waste. One could say that all of the varying ambiguities and messy strands of political strife coursing throughout the ‘70s are all found in Carpenter’s air-tight package.
Even if it is a little confused in its reckless amoral abandon, Assault is an inimitable work of craft (with the caveat that Carpenter himself did imitate and surpass it a handful of times over). For one, Carpenter’s first utilization of the Panasonic lens he would cotton to throughout his career spreads distressed, hollowed-out space over the film like turpentine. The contrast between the choking interiors and the Panasonically-enhanced lateral exteriors enforces the suffocating girth of the empty external space outside the precinct, a veritable no man’s land where a mere step is a sure-fire portal into the underworld. Following, his debut feature Dark Star, a manic sci-fi comedy, Assault burns away the wit for another kind of extraterrestrial landscape: a deathless, poker-faced image of primordial, walking inferno.
Diabolical command of visual space aside, another aspect of Carpenter’s filmmaking that first found its footing on the precipice of human terror is Carpenter’s electronic score, an aural plane of primarily negative sound that serves as a sublime pairing with the forlorn visuals. The uninhabited desolation of the ground-level visuals burrow deep into the earth and permeate outward through the air on the coattails of the space-invading concoction of devilish jagged musical peaks and atonal wails that encase the film in an alley cat, mummified penitentiary of diffuse sound. Carpenter would navigate these waters many times over (his scores for Halloween and Escape from New York are canonical), but, again, the malignant simplicity of the coarse filmmaking this early on is both the core of his work and arguably the purest example of Carpenter’s unleavened mastery of cinematic form.