Assault on Precinct 13 (John Carpenter, 1976)
The first thing that a viewer who stumbles upon John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 would experience is its electronica score. A repetitive melody-scarce score plays over the film's lengthy opening credits. The droning gets quite grating; and the culprit for the synthesizer score (as we'll get to see) is director John Carpenter himself. Carpenter, who wrote the screenplay, also edits the film (under pseudonym John T. Chance --- as a tribute to the protagonist in Howard Hawk's Rio Bravo (1959), the clear inspiration for this film). Shot over the span of twenty days, Assault on Precinct 13 is nothing short of an achievement in low budget filmmaking. As bad as the pun may seem, Carpenter isn't just the carpenter, he's also the architect, the engineer, the painter, and the interior designer.
The score isn't actually bad. Once Carpenter sinks you in slowly but surely into the film, the score mixes perfectly with everything else. The once-grating repetitive melody becomes akin to a heart beating profusely. You actually quite follow it --- you dread the score that dictates tension, and you treasure when it levitates to something easing. It's quite an effective score --- nothing fancy, nothing extravagant, just purely supportive of whatever else Carpenter is cooking up onscreen.
It's the score that made the film's singlemost horrific sequence so memorable. A little girl asks his father for spare change to purchase ice cream from an ice cream truck. In the background, a black car carrying four gangmembers out for a random kill is roving. In a sequence that is made more tense by the pulsating electronica in the background, the ice cream vendor is mauled then murdered, and the little girl is unflinchingly shot point blank. This sets the father into a vengeful rampage, killing one of the gangmembers with a pistol. The father is then chased by the gang to the soon-to-be-vacated precinct in the middle of town.
The precinct is headed by Bishop (Austin Stoker) for the night. Alone with a couple of cops, a few precint employees (including sexy Leigh, played by Laurie Zimmer), and some prisoners (Wells, played by Tony Burton and ambiguous Wilson, played by Darwin Joston) in transit to a neighboring jail, Bishop would have to defend the precinct from the murderous gangmembers who are out to kill. It's a genius concept (although borrowed from Hawks), which despite its incredible turn of events, foreshadows a social ill --- of that time bomb of the youth of an impoverished community, mixed with years and decades of racial respite, of exposure to media, and of numbing indications of their role in society, that will soon explode in a bloodbath of exact confrontation between the "us" and the "them." It's a classic film conflict, only emphasized by Carpenter with his precise film language.
The film begins with a few gangmembers sneaking in a darkened alley. Moments later, they are shot violently by police officers using high powered firearms. We hear from the radio news that what happened the night before was a shoot-out (which is a fallacy since a shoot-out consists of both parties shooting at each other); we also learn that the gang is a strange mixture of different races when their leaders perform a bloodletting ritual. Carpenter opts to snatch human faces from the gangmembers --- they have no personalities (although a hint of savagery, of amoral depravity is painted to the child-murderer), they move as hordes, and they die like soulless beings (for which they do the same, as each body count for them is nothing more than a path for their vendetta's completion.
Despite Carpenter's portrayal of the gang as nobodies, as mere foot soldiers whose death we delight upon, there's still a sense that they could be victims turned victimizers --- especially with that opening sequence of defenseless rub-out, of Carpenter's decision to leave these gangmembers' past a secret and their humanity concealed. They live by a complex code of action, something more ancient than the rules of American civility, and that accounts for their overt rebellion to social standards and against the protector of such standards, the police. In a sense, we cannot really regard the gang as downright savage and uncivilized but merely as the "other," marginalized for years by America and have logically opted to form their own cultural norms and moral codes --- an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, no matter how many eyes and teeth are obliterated along the way.
This post is my contribution to Lazy Eye Theater: John Carpenter Blog-A-Thon.