Thursday, August 4, 2011

Why John Carpenter's Subversive & Brilliant Assault on Precinct 13 is One of the Best Pictures Ever Made

Warning dear readers and true believers: There are sure to be some spoilers ahead, so if you have not seen the film in question and you are one who worries about such things - ye have been warned.

There is a moment, about a third of the way through John Carpenter's 1976 sophomore effort, Assault on Precinct 13, where gang members are beating (and about to kill) an ice cream truck driver somewhere in one of the worst areas of L.A. and a little girl, about 8 or 9, blonde hair in appropriately precocious Cindy Brady pigtails, and holding a vanilla ice cream cone, her lost father frantically on a payphone down the street trying to get them out of this neighbourhood - and here we are, the viewer, thinking to ourselves, "does Carpenter actually have the balls to kill this little girl?"  Well apparently he does, and not only does he have such balls, they are big enough to not have this matter-of-fact killing play off-screen and then cut to the dead little girl lying on the ground.  No sirree - Carpenter shows us front and center and framed to perfection almost as if he were Stanley 'fucking' Kubrick.  Blam!  The bullet goes through ice cream cone and her dress is splattered in blood - and she drops down dead as anything.  Now those are some balls.

The MPAA threatened to give the film an X rating if this scene was not cut from the picture.  Carpenter relented, took the scene out and gave it to the censor board who in turn gave it an R rating.  Of course, with balls like Carpenter's, the director took the movie, re-inserted the scene back into the film and released it uncut with the R rating.  Whether Carpenter or his distributor (who incidentally urged the director to play this sleight-of-hand trick on the MPAA) ever got into trouble for this I do not know, but it is another story on just how big of balls John Carpenter has.  But enough about Carpenter and his enormous balls - it's getting kinda creepy coming back to this allusion again and again - let us discuss the film we came here to discuss - Assault on Precinct 13.

Playing at being a remake of sorts of Howard Hawks' classic Rio Bravo as well as an artistic homage to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, Carpenter's unique talent as a filmmaker was just coming into view with Precinct 13.  An obvious cinephile, Carpenter has made a career out of being a latter day master of horror, but no matter what grotesquery he happens to put up there on the screen - be it a slimy, slithery alien spider formed out of a human head or a mask-wearing, machete-wielding maniac out for bloody revenge on All Hallows Eve - the director will always show his love of the western in the way he puts his films together.  With his first film, not only does he take the basic storyline of the aforementioned Hawks classic (one of Carpenter's all-time favourites and one of this critic's as well) but he does it with the archetype characters of the genre.  Of course he also brings in his love of horror with the seeming never-ending waves of gang members (much like the walking dead in Romero's flicks) and the ever-diminishing array of good guys.

The basic story (in case you are unaware) is about a standoff between that seemingly endless wave of gang members and the handful of trapped wouldbe survivors inside a now abandoned police station in one of the worst areas of Los Angeles.  This band of intrepid heroes consist of a black police lieutenant (his colour being a major casting choice in 1976), a pair of police secretaries (one of which, played by the alluring and mysterious former actress Laurie Zimmer, much like Angie Dickinson in the aforementioned Hawks' classic, more than holds her own against these unstoppable forces), a pair of convicts on their way to a maximum security prison and a catatonic man who has run in for help after seeing his daughter murdered beside an ice cream truck.  Since they are in a closed station and well away from any residents who might call for help, this band of forced renegades must fight these impossible odds without any hope for any proverbial cavalry swooshing in at the last minute and saving everyone.

Carpenter's brand of hopeless justice (as seen in most of his films) lends its hand to the type of storytelling the director has become famous for.  No survivors, few survivors, hopes dwindling as the odds take on the inevitable unfavourable turn it always does in Carpenter's films (who can stand against monsters like Michael Myers or the Thing when one has no hope of permanently destroying them!?) -- this is all part of the director's hopeless justice brand of moviemaking.  In Precinct 13, this hopelessness perverts everything in the film.  Daring to brutally and daringly murder children with ice cream cones just as easily as gang members with weapons.  His never-ending brutality to go with his undead-esque gang members (to show even deeper homage to Romero, none of Carpenter's gang members ever speak a word) beat beat beat down our heroes, and I suppose, our anti-heroes, until we are left with the explosive finale Carpenter gleefully gives us.  The final image of said battle, as the smoke clears, is the perfect ending (well, penultimate ending one might say) and the only way it could have ended - not to mention the best single shot in (that doesn't involve a human head being transformed into a slimy spider-like alien creature) the whole of Carpenter's multi-layered oeuvre.


Mat Viola said...


The killing of the little girl might have been inspired by Fonda's murder of the kid in Once Upon a Time in the West. OUATITW is one of Carpenter's favorite films (he even had Morricone's music played at his wedding). He also gives one of his characters the "something to do with death" line from OUATITW.

But I don't know, it seems Carpenter's balls have been shrinking at an alarming rate recently (though I haven't seen his new film yet).


Kevyn Knox said...

That is a great theory Mat. I hadn't thought of the connection between the two for some reason.

As for Carpenter's shrinking balls, yes they most certainly have done so. His latest, The Ward, is a step back to his hey day, but still only a step.

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