Viking Night: Assault on Precinct 13
By Bruce Hall
April 19, 2011
There comes a point in your life where you’ve got enough notches in your belt for them to tell a story. Maybe the early ones represent impulsive acts of youth. Maybe the later ones represent wisdom and experience. Maybe carving notches on your belt is something they only do in places where running water is still considered science fiction. The point is that we’re motivated by different things at different times in our lives, and it’s not much different in the context of a career. Some would argue that creative types tend to do their best work early, when they’re still motivated by fear of disgrace and failure. That can wear off over the course of a long career, and success doesn’t motivate us the same way that failure does. Failure at least breeds innovation in sharp minds; uninterrupted streaks of success tend to encourage stagnation. And when a successful guy starts getting stagnant, who’s going to be the one to tell him? Would he even bother to listen?
These were my thoughts as I tried to sit through John Carpenter’s Vampires back in 1998. I mention this movie in particular only because I took a date to see it, and the entire experience was a nightmare. The date was one of the most awkward experiences of my adult life. Yet I don’t remember the girl nearly as well as I do the incredibly horrible movie we saw on that awful day. But I come here today to praise John Carpenter, not to bury him. And the purpose of this article is to celebrate a film he made at the beginning of his career, presumably when he was still taking advice from people. It’s an underrated picture, sandwiched on Carpenter’s resume between Dark Star and Halloween. It might seem more obvious for me to write about one of those films, but try and make me choose between the obvious and the obscure and...well, I’ll pick Assault on Precinct 13 every time. Besides, I’m just coming off Donnie Darko and Eraserhead. I’m in no mood to tackle Dark Star.
Assault on Precinct 13 is set in a fictional version of Los Angeles where violent gangs have overrun the city’s poor neighborhoods like a cancer. Thugs roam the streets in tricked out muscle cars, taking their aimless aggression out on a helpless population already weary from years of economic stagnation and lack of political leadership. Armed with military grade weapons, one gang has the upper hand and a terrified public is left to fend for itself as the police abandon the neighborhood. I know how implausible this sounds; how hard it is to close your eyes and imagine such a thing. Believe me, I have no idea where Carpenter gets his crazy ideas. Eventually the gang attacks a single dad and his adorable daughter, imposing upon the child one of the more chilling screen deaths I can immediately recall.
The father (who totally looks like James Woods, but isn’t) chases the thugs down, killing the gunman before finding himself outnumbered by the rest. He flees to the nearest police station for help with the gang members in hot pursuit. I don’t know about you, but should I ever find myself hunted by an insanely violent mob of psychotic killers, I’d like to think I could race into a police station and get a little help. Unfortunately, the latest neighborhood the cops have given up on is this one, and Anderson Precinct 13 is just hours away from shutting down forever. The phone lines are already disconnected and the building has been conspicuously stripped of all communication capability – which of course will in no way prove significant later on in the film.