I have this obsession with early John Carpenter films, because they are in my mind, some of the best cinema ever made. The acting, the camera work, the home spun music, the originality, the make up and effects, the overwhelming sense of dread they all hold. I do admit that his later work is…well, different to say the least, but that early work, up until 1990 is something other worldly. It’s bold in your face work from a man you can tell absolutely loves cinema. He’s not afraid to make a fool of himself to do what HE wants, and that’s saying something.
In short, Carpenter is King. That’s it.
So, I thought I’d take some time out to appreciate one of my favorite directors of all time by reviewing and reliving some of my favorite Carpenter classics.
His work has always been an inspiration to me, and I firmly believe he will go down as one of the most revolutionary film makers of all time.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
The Fog (1980)
Escape From New York (1981)
The Thing (1982)
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
They Live (1988)
First up, Assault on Precinct 13.
I’m not sure who was the first to do the “few against many” story in a film, but Assault does it best.
And that’s saying something, because just off the top of my head I can name First Blood, The Wild Bunch, The Warriors, The Raid, Dirty Dozen, and Red Hill.
Assault on Precinct 13 started as a dare. Producer J. Stein Kaplan approached a relatively unknown Carpenter and offered him $100,000 to make the best B-Movie that he could make. Carpenter had a script he had written called “The Anderson Alamo” which was like Rio Bravo meets Night of the Living Dead. This would eventually turn into Assault on Precinct 13.
On a normal day, in the Anderson ghetto of Los Angeles, things are happening.
The night before, the LAPD was in a bloody battle with a gang known as Street Thunder, killing many members. The warlords of said gang initiate “Cholo” which is gang for “Kill everything.”
An unsuspecting Lieutenant by the name of Ethan Bishop, is charged with watching over the Anderson police precinct on Gramercy in its last few hours of operation. It’s only him and a bare bones staff consisting of a couple secretaries and a deputy. Meanwhile, a bus transporting inmates across state, has a sick man on board. They happen to pull into the Anderson station for help. Bishop locks the criminals up, three total, in separate cells while the warden on the bus, Starker, attempts to get medical help.
Outside of Anderson, a gang member steals an ice cream van and kills a small girl. The father chases the member down and murders him. The gang then pursues the father into Anderson, right to Precinct 13
And then Holy Hell breaks loose.
The phone lines get cut. Brass flies. Blood is shed.
And it’s one of the greatest things you could ever hope to witness
Now, as a guy, I’m inclined to love these type of films. I love watching movies where people have to survive. Where you are brought down to that most human element, where then, and only then can find out who you really are and what you are capable of doing. It’s why we love sports. Bottom of the 9th, two outs, you have the chance to end the game. Do you freeze? Do you become a hero? You survive. You pull out all the stops in your mind and heart and you run off pure pumping adrenaline. You don’t think. You don’t feel. You just act.
John Carpenter captures this perfectly in Assault. When the Lieutenant tosses an inmate a shot gun, he is putting his life at risk, but he doesn’t care. He knows that either “This man will kill me, himself, or he’ll help.” And those are the only chances he has. You get to watch this unfold. You have a front row seat to watching primal human instinct and what we can do, given the circumstance.
It’s an idea that Carpenter would explore later in The Thing and even Halloween.
This is an unrelenting film. When you watch a small child get blown away right in front of you eyes, then you truly have witnessed the worst in man.
And Carpenter shows this without flinching.
We watch the street thug pull out a gun, and without even looking in the girl’s direction, point and fire. The crimson blood splattered all over her yellow dress. And she falls, silently and softly to the ground. The thug holsters his weapon and walks away, like he was just taking out the trash.
It’s not an easy thing to stomach. I remember the first time I watched it and how sweaty my hands were from the whole ordeal. The girl gets the ice cream cone and walks away and you’re ok with that. You’re happy, and then she realizes it’s the wrong flavor, and that music hits that note that only Carpenter can conduct. And your whole body starts to tingle. This isn’t going to happen.
It’s pretty electrifying.
I’m amazed at anyone that can write, direct, edit, and compose the music for their own films and Assault really shows off the skill that Carpenter can achieve. This being one of his early works, and to some the best, speaks volumes for the intelligence and shear creativity that he possesses.
I recommend Assault on Precinct 13, if that wasn’t obvious enough.