Movie auteur John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 turns 40 today, giving Debra-Jane Appelby the perfect excuse to wax lyrical about the sheer John Carpenterness of John Carpenter.
Assault on Precinct 13 is 40 years old. A film good enough to warrant a bad remake, but perhaps one that you would not be familiar with. It’s a seminal John Carpenter movie and, as such, shares many of the traits of his genius.
For example, if you want to know what a John Carpenter movie is about, don’t bother with a review, just read the title. Assault on Precinct 13 is about Precinct 13 being assaulted. The Fog, The Thing, Halloween… OK, got it. Ghosts of Mars? It’s Mars. There are ghosts. Escape From New York? What could that be about?
What is it about a John Carpenter movie that makes them all a pretty solid watch even four decades later? In a word: simplicity. There’s nothing fancy or hidden or artistically pretentious about them yet they all have the stamp of the auteur. Carpenter is often the writer, producer, director AND even does the music on some, either solely or in a co-capacity. A John Carpenter movie IS a John Carpenter movie.
Most will know those famous for being a John Carpenter flick – Halloween, The Thing, Escape From New York, perhaps – but there are many others in the canon worth a look. Assault on Precinct 13 is one of those. A tight, tense personal drama of a diverse group having to overcome their prejudices in order to survive being besieged within the eponymous police station by the calmest, most intense group of murderous gang members ever put on film.
In a keenly paced 90-odd minutes it manages to evoke both the western and zombie genres, with a small group taking on seemingly unsurmountable odds and unstoppable waves of foes. Add to that the classic haunting style of electronica music Carpenter is famous for.
Another hallmark of a Carpenter movie is lacklustre box office performance followed by almost immediate cult status. Look at the Wikipedia entries for a lot of his movies and you will see the word “under-performed” followed very closely by “reappraised”. For some reason the critics can’t seem to ‘get’ a John Carpenter movie the first time round — until millions of people tell them to look again at what undoubtedly was a classic in waiting.
“If you haven’t really paid attention to John Carpenter and his movies it’s probably because when you watched and liked them you didn’t realise they were John Carpenter movies. Like The Thing’s Thing, they have assimilated us all.”
One possible reason for this is the era. His heyday was arguably the 1970s and 80s, the years of the exploitation flick and the rise of home video. Many of these films, made on a low budget in the ‘exploitation’ realm and given limited theatrical release found a new home on the burgeoning home video market as they are the perfect snuggle on the couch, lights out, ‘let’s have a marathon with a big bowl of popcorn’ flick.
This is even the case with The Thing, Carpenter’s 1982 reimagining of John W Campbell Jr’s classic sci-fi novella Who Goes There?. Sharing very little with The Thing From Another World, the Howard Hawks version from 1951, and arguably Carpenter’s finest work, it was released against E.T. and Blade Runner and sank without trace at the box office, but is now considered (by me at least) to be one of the greatest horror movies of all time.
It is the most John Carpenter of John Carpenter movies. It takes an existing work and builds on it; it takes a young talent and brings them into the limelight with Rob Bottin’s ground-breaking special effects. It evokes terror through paranoia and the very first bars of the soundtrack just send chills though your spine. And it has Kurt Russell in the lead. Doesn’t get more JC than that.
The film even inspired Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, which contains unused cues from the score, co-produced by Carpenter and Ennio Morricone. From its setting to its star to its thrilling examination of paranoia, The Hateful Eight is almost a western themed remake. The Thing was the only film Tarantino screened for his cast as an example of what they were out to achieve.
However, up against the polished, kid-friendly, feelgood E.T. and requiring early-80s Reagan-era moviegoers to both use their brains and accept a nihilistic downbeat ending, the original suffered at the box office.
Carpenter himself views it as a high point and also the first in his ‘Apocalypse Trilogy’ which includes 1987’s Prince of Darkness and concludes with 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness. The former, which harks back to Assault on Precinct 13, sees a group of scientists and students trapped in a church by possessed homeless people, and Satan turns out to be a canister of concentrated liquid evil.
OK. So I lost a few of you there, but it’s pretty good in that same, paranoia-inducing, save-the-world, plotline-as-examination-of-good-and-evil-as-physical-things-intrinsically-linked-to-time-and-space way. Also, Alice Cooper as a tramp who kills someone with a bicycle. Got you back!
In the Mouth of Madness has the world threatened once again but this time by HP Lovecraft-inspired Old Gods invading the world through a reclusive Stephen King-type author willing them into being through his mass consumed works of horror fiction.
If you haven’t really paid attention to John Carpenter and his movies it’s probably because when you watched and liked them you didn’t realise they were John Carpenter movies. Like The Thing’s Thing, they have assimilated us all. I recommend digging them out, grabbing the blanket and the popcorn, turning down the lights and letting this gentle Carpenter show you the true way to spine-chilling entertainment.
And if you don’t think of yourself as a horror movie person, start with Big Trouble in Little China. It’s on Netflix and as the poster said: “It’s not your everyday Mystical, Action, Adventure, Comedy, Kung Fu, Monster, Ghost Story!”
Listen to more of Debra-Jane’s wise words on our Strong Female Leads podcast.
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Loud, Yorkshire, opinionated, techno-geek, trans-woman comedian with a fondness for excessive culinary pleasures and too little exercise.