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Categories: Features

Josh Merritt professes his love for Assault on Precinct 13, the film that began the world’s love affair with a B-movie maverick John Carpenter.

I don’t think anyone has influenced my life quite like John Carpenter. You’d be hard-pressed to find a film fan who doesn’t know his work, and even if you’re not consciously aware of the name, there’s no escaping how much he has permeated popular culture and the zeitgeist psyche.

Without his self-composed scores, there might have been no Synthwave or Electro genre, and the 1980s might have been a very different landscape musically, despite his being most heavily inspired by rock and metal (see later works such as the insane In the Mouth of Madness) – for example, the main riff to the theme of the film I’m writing about, at least the structure & rhythm, was snatched from Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin, but also Lalo Schifrin’s fantastically dirty score to the even dirtier Dirty Harry, which is another brilliant mainstream 1970s exploitation film.

His work has been influencing my life, whether through traumatising me to the point of recurring nightmares and a palpable anxiety about home invasion (which has become an obsession in my screenwriting/filmmaking), or sparking a deep love for open-endings and mystery, since I was little.

My favourite of his canon, the one I crave and return to most often, is 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13. Now this is saying a lot, as it was the only one of his movies I hadn’t seen – the first was Halloween at far too young an age – until last year when Second Sight Films released their beautiful 4K restoration on Blu-ray – an awesome release – and for a limited run in cinemas; before that, it had been almost impossible to watch in the UK.

There are elements of the ambient to his works, such as minimalist soundtracks, isolated settings and characters on the outskirts of or just seemingly forgotten by society, use of the environment to set a tone/atmosphere and build up tension through diegetic sound, etc. Assault is no exception.

Here is the film’s premise: “An ambitious, idealistic patrolman supervises a police precinct’s final night, but when a gang initiates their revenge-fuelled blood oath, he corrals his skeleton staff and prisoners to survive.”

Austin Stoker plays said idealistic patrolman is played with beautiful, stoic restraint and a cheeky glint. Along with Sidney Poitier, Austin nabbed one of the few heroic starring roles for an African-American actor in the 70s, outside of the blaxploitation genre that he was actually also known for (he was Pam Grier’s love interest in Sheba, Baby the year before Assault).

Stoker was quite well-known and successful by this point anyway, having done Battle for the Planet of the Apes in 1973. The next year he would go on to the now-legendary television mini-series Roots, a portrait of American slavery.

In its essence, Assault is a siege film, but also deals with the political and social unrest of the time, although without being preachy and never giving any definitive answers. The audience are always left wondering.

Like a number of great 1970s films, aspects like cinematography and dialogue/subtext reflect the dirty and corrupt nature of the age. Paranoia, conspiracy theory, ethics and morality, anti-heroes such as vigilantes, the rollover of crazies rejected and spat out from the previous decade, yearning for the loss of the 1960s and all its hope and optimism. As a result, the film holds a hallucinogenic, hysterical heatwave-like quality.

Carpenter’s dream was to be a director of Westerns, but by the time he came along they were no longer in vogue. So for his second feature, he took some of his favourite films, mainly Rio Bravo (from his favourite director, Howard Hawks, whose work there is a number of references to in Assault. Hawks was also an uncredited co-director on The Thing from Another World in 1951, footage from which features quite heavily in Carpenter’s own Halloween, and which Carpenter would re-invent and totally re-define for his own The Thing in 1982), and mashed them with more modern fare, updating to a contemporary setting.

In his own words: “I kind of wanted to make a modern-day version [of Rio Bravo], but added in the elements of other exploitation movies and ended up with Assault.”

Carpenter has said that this is the most fun he’s ever had directing – it shows! Despite the low $100,000 budget, he essentially got to make the Western he always wanted to, with no interference.

It was also partly out of necessity that Carpenter’s signature sound came into being when budget also forced him to do his own scores – his dad was a music teacher. He wrote it in three days, then performed & recorded it with Tommy Lee Wallace, who would go on to direct the awesome Halloween III: Season of the Witch and 1990’s It).

The synthesiser technology was already old at this stage, and the synth banks would have to be reset every time they were creating a new sound, so it was a lengthy process.

A benefit is that this then lends an eerie warping sensation, much like VHS tracking would make films seem more dangerous and taboo, as if you were watching something you shouldn’t (which, at a certain age, was true).

This ‘phasing/tracking’ effect was incidental and couldn’t be helped, but in this case experimentation and invention through necessity worked out rather well, as it makes the film even more unnerving.

Most of Carpenter’s work involves an evil force or sense of doom encroaching upon or testing goodness and Puritanism. Nothing is at first what it appears, nor are the people. The score signals that something is shifting beneath the surface.

I could literally talk about the score and Carpenter’s music for hours, but there’s far too much to be said here, so do yourselves a favour: go and explore, read up.

The most discussed moment from the film, perhaps for the wrong reasons, is the infamous Ice Cream Truck Death (great name for a band). A young girl – played by Kim Richards, who is now one of the stars of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills alongside her sister Kyle Richards, who was in Halloween – is gunned down stone dead with complete indifference by a gang member while she eats an ice cream, when we’re at our most vulnerable.

Still shocking and controversial to this day, equally an albatross around the film’s neck but at the same time surely drawing in new audiences with a morbid fascination.

Carpenter now says he regrets doing it and, given the chance again, would not include it in the finished piece. Rather than being unnecessary, it is intrinsic to the plot.

The MPAA, essentially the American version of our BBFC (censors, ratings board, whatever you want to call them; basically they dish out film certifications), threatened to give the film an X rating – still preferable to going out unrated, which was like death to a film back then – if this scene was not cut.

What Carpenter did, on the advice of his distributor, was to cut the scene from the version he submitted to the MPAA, then released it uncut, which was apparently a common practice among low-budget filmmakers.

In his own words: “I don’t know how clever it was. We had a scene where a little girl gets killed with a gun, and it was pretty horrible at the time – explicit. I don’t think I’d do it again but I was young and stupid”.

So there it is on the screen and the MPAA said they were going to give us an X, so the distributor of the movie suggested: ‘Just cut it out. We’ll show it to the MPAA and then just let it go as it was’ and those were the old days where they didn’t check so much, so that’s what we did… So I don’t know, I don’t really think it was very clever, it was pretty ham-fisted…”. You can see where all the moral conflict of his work derives from.

Back on the subject of mystery, they seem to have had their fair share behind the scenes. One of the best extras on the Assault Blu-ray is a 2003 French documentary called Do You Remember Laurie Zimmer?

The director, Charlotte Szlovak, traces the missing years and current whereabouts of the actress Laurie Zimmer – in Assault she plays Leigh, who you suspect has a hidden past and shares an interesting dynamic with the most notorious prisoner: Napoleon Wilson – played by Darwin Joston, who was Carpenter’s neighbour at the time.

Leigh is one of my favourite female characters ever – Carpenter had a knack for writing women. Assault was her first feature. After finishing it, she did two or three others, then changed her stage name to Laura Fanning. She finally left the business after a TV movie in 1979 and seemingly vanished, at least from the limelight.

Nancy Loomis, who would go on to become a Carpenter regular in the first three Halloween films and The Fog, also features as the nervy Julie. Assault definitely still has relevance today, as is proven by the not-as-bad-as-everyone-makes-out 2005 remake with Laurence Fishburne and Ethan Hawke.

You still can’t beat the original, though. All the characters are great and represent the tone phenomenally; their quirks are never forced. The dialogue is fantastic: never being on-the-nose or letting the cat out of the bag, even at the “moment of dying”. Capturing both the heart of Westerns and the anxious, jittery intrigue and intensity of 1970s exploitation, with hushed conspiracy and corruption – what I like to call ‘sheep dressed as wolves’ syndrome.

There’s a nervous energy and grunginess, perhaps more apt to our times than ever (as Carpenter has noted about his seminal 1988 film They Live, ‘Reaganomics’ and capitalist greed are still with us today, even if people pretend they aren’t and try to hide or disguise it; we are still suffering the reverberations and fallout of Reaganist / Thatcherite politics), in 1970s and 80s exploitation films – to me, watching them feels like anything could happen, like you’re right on the edge of society’s collapse. These pictures still have the power to be genuinely shocking and sordid even by today’s standards.

 Assault has a sense of urgency about it, like its playing out in real-time, which is enhanced by the use of documentary devices such as date, location and time markers. A lot of modern cinema, while entertaining, seems too perfect and safe and restrained, too easy; it’s missing that true sense of fear and dread that horrors & thrillers like Assault possessed. You could often see all this in the actors’ eyes and believe it was real (the ‘snuff effect’)!

I count documentary as currently the only medium that can still catch that level of hysteria and heart-palpitating terror.

Assault doesn’t age, because it deals with isolated characters in an isolated setting where there are no real points of reference or context to date the material, and things like clothes are either so plain or so iconic that they never really feel out of time, plus 50% of the costumes are uniforms, which haven’t ever changed much.

A film, though, is meant to be an escape from reality, even if superficially it doesn’t match your generation. Assault doesn’t have that problem, though; it has the punk spirit and style that has never aged, and is perhaps more cool and influential today than ever.

Take this one as an interesting history lesson of a dystopian wasteland, a future that never happened, or is yet to. Part of the fun is not knowing! Same as in life.

Josh Merritt

Josh is a UK-based writer/filmmaker and video editor. He has worked with the British Film Institute, BBC Radio, Barbican. Named one of "five to look out for" by The Guardian. You can read more about him on his website joshmerritt.co.uk.

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Posted on Jun 12, 2017

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