There is a wave of nostalgia racing through mainstream filmmaking and television right now, a neon wave, accompanied by a synth soundtrack and a whole host of familiar tropes. This wave is making people pretty happy (just look at the ratings for Stranger Things or the success of It Follows) reminding them of the films and shows they grew up with, taking them back to a less cynical and more outrageous time, where it was VHS box covers, and not a rotten tomato, that decided which film you were going to watch with your friends during a sleepover. But with this wave comes a sacrifice of originality, of cinematic recklessness, as we prepare for comfort and sentimentality instead of originality. It is important then that we remind ourselves of the pioneers of the audacious cinema that we still all pine for today.
Arguably the chieftain of 70s and 80’s genre flicks, John Carpenter did not make boring films back then and, arguably, never has. In this case his 1976 action film Assault on Precinct 13 is classic Carpenter, an atmospheric budget film that can be interpreted as a brutally violent, lowest common denominator action film or a brilliantly constructed and intelligently staged slice of Americana. The premise is simple enough as a ragtag group of social opposites get caught up in an Alamo-esque situation, attempting to keep a vengeful hoard of street thugs from entering an abandoned police station so they can survive through the night. The way you interpret it doesn’t really matter, as Carpenter is so competent as a writer/director that there is something to enjoy around every dilapidated corner of this film.
The grisly, visually dark opening sequence of the film is an immediate indication of the subtle unconventionality of early Carpenter as a bunch of gang members are trapped like rats then mowed down by local law enforcement in a hail of gunfire. The police are faceless and shot in shadow, like you would a typical antagonist, but this sense of moral black and white won’t last long and these government-sponsored killings exist as part of a long sequence of violence begetting violence. Assault On Precinct 13 is not a film trying to take sides but it constantly reminds us that we live in chaos and we should take heed of the good people that we meet as they are few and far between.
Nothing quite exemplifies the lack of righteousness in Carpenter’s films as one of his most infamous and iconic cinematic moments when, in an act of callous, vengeance-fuelled violence, the local gang lords shoot a little girl and leave her for dead next to an ice cream truck. The shot of her prone body, seen from her father’s perspective, lying next to the truck, a recognisable symbol of all our childhoods, is shocking but not exploitative, real enough to put an angry lump in your throat but not over-played to the point of repugnance. It is also the point where we realise that nobody is safe in this film, a rare and almost dizzying experience in an age where plot-armour is determined by salary and age certifications.
Above all else, the film is fast and relentless. Once we are stuck inside the station with our remaining survivors being bombarded with gunfire we don’t have time to question their decisions, as neither do they. Just like its clearest inspiration, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the film’s tiny budget of just $100,000 does show at times, as of course it must, but this takes away nothing from its charm, anchored by two things; the performances of the actors, somehow authentic and openly hammy at the same time, and the steadying stamp of an auteur at work, a man with full control of his film and his budget. Maybe underneath all the synth and neon we are really just nostalgic for the brilliantly realised low-budget or mid-budget film, unspoiled by too many cooks.
Just in time for its 40th anniversary, a newly restored version of Assault On Precinct 13 will be released on Blu-ray and DVD by Second Sight on the 28th November.