South Central LA. A local gang declares war on the police
after some of its members are ambushed. Their attacks culminate
in them laying siege to an isolated police station that is
about to close. The handful of officers and criminals inside
soon realise that they are in a fight to the death. A late
1970s update of Howard Hawks' western, Rio Bravo...
1978. London listings rag Time Out devotes a front
cover to two young directors who, it claims, are set to become
the kings of Hollywood. One is Steven Spielberg, whose Close
Encounters of the Third Kind is just about to hit British
theatres. But the other is not Star Wars' George Lucas.
It is John Carpenter. The magazine's critics base their choice
on his second feature, Assault on Precinct 13.
Carpenter's recent output, it's easy now to mock. Ghosts
of Mars, Vampires, Escape From LA and Village of the
Damned is a pretty horrible sequence. But up until the
late 1980s/early 1990s, it is fair to say that the two cover-boys
did represent poles in mainstream genre filmmaking, and particularly
in fantasy and science-fiction.
Spielberg cooked up blockbusters within the Hollywood system,
Carpenter was the smart outsider, making the most successful
independent film of its time, Halloween. And in Summer
1983, the two men came up with radically different takes on
the alien invader: Spielberg gave us the benevolent ET.
Carpenter had other ideas. The Thing remains one of
the bleakest, nastiest and thoroughly entertaining splatterfests
ever made. Much of the contrast was already there in those
was indeed, with the preceding year's Star Wars, one
of the precursors of today's Hollywood: a big-budget, skilfully
mounted and visually spectacular confection with pretensions
to a 'philosophy' but actually the softest and dumbest of
centres. Assault was something else. Keeping with the
mood of the times, you could even have seen it as an emerging
punk band that wanted nothing to do with any Fleetwood Mac-like
had been made for pennies, slyly parodied any notion of a
philosophy, and looked defiantly gritty. Its characters had
little time for their inner selves or any form of emotional
posturing. They were taciturn men and women of action, contemporary
versions of the toughies who inhabited Howard Hawks' westerns,
that director being Carpenter's acknowledged main influence.
This 'garage' movie did not give a shit - and it said that
sometimes we are very alone indeed.
did link Carpenter and Spielberg was their understanding of
the language of cinema. They stood out as the very best in
their profession at composing a frame, editing an action sequence
(a role where Carpenter sometimes, as in Assault, doubled
up) and pulling off a camera move that could make you gasp
at both its audacity and its appropriateness. It's just that
25 years on, well, Fleetwood Mac are on yet another stadium
tour this Summer.
Spielberg might wear the crown, but Image Entertainment's
newly-released high definition transfer of Assault
is nevertheless very welcome.
For a start, it gives British fans a chance to experience
this influential film properly - and after a long wait - in
2.35:1 Panavision, unlike the current UK DVD, inexplicably
framed at 1.85:1. It's bad enough cropping any movie like
that, but when it's been made by a director who is a master
of widescreen composition, you're talking about vandalism.
the film does not disappoint as entertainment. At the time,
Carpenter wanted a career desperately. His budget was a mere
$100 000 - CE3K cost $20m - so he had to apply great
imagination and skill to his professional debut/showreel (the
earlier Dark Star was an expanded student project).
Less had to mean more.
of you might remember individual sequences. To name but two,
there are the shocking but blackly comic murder of a young
girl, shot through her ice cream cone, and the gang's attack
with silenced guns that creates an chillingly beautiful flurry
of paper and broken glass inside the station. But watching
the film again in its entirety, you also become aware of the
consistent creation of tension and mood, and of the strong
performances Carpenter got from his unknown cast.
in bits, most likely because of its age, it's gratifying to
be reminded that the film is very much all of a piece - a
91-minute thrill ride with the right number of peaks and troughs.
Halloween would be, by comparison, a more straightforward
albeit ruthlessly efficient exercise in going 'Boo!'
The DVD features a self-deprecating and considered commentary
from the director (lifted from an earlier US laserdisc release).
In it, he notes that today, he would have had to put more
action sequences into the film to get it funded. What he doesn't
make clear, though, is just how comfortable he feels about
that. Would he personally want more gunfights or is he dryly
noting contemporary producers' taste? One hopes it's the latter.
special editions go the excellent transfer (there is some
grain but that's mostly from the original negative) and commentary
make for a respectable package. Which is good, given there
isn't too much else of note. A retrospective interview with
Carpenter and actor Austin Stoker contains memorable anecdotes
but is so badly shot and has such poor sound that it irritates
as much as it informs. You'll only watch it once. Similarly,
the stills gallery is of the take-it-or-leave it kind. We
also get only a mono soundtrack, although there is a music-only
option that showcases the film's famous and ominous electronic
Somehow, though, those quibbles don't matter, because this
disc offers one other revelation. Assault has dated
better than CE3K - both have great technique and remain
fun, but Carpenter's film seems more in tune with our times
and far more urgent in its demand for your attention. Which
leads on to a possible irony: when Spielberg decided to get
tough in Minority Report, whose name occasionally sprang
to your mind watching its hunted and stoical hero in a screwed-up
might not be sci-fi, but an urban western. However, Assault's
and Carpenter's influences on new and existing filmmakers
in our genre persist to this day. If you take your cinema
seriously, you must see this movie.
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