What makes John Carpenter such an incredible filmmaker? Many things, but one skill he has is being able to make a terrific story come alive whether he has a huge budget or not, whether it’s a giant high concept story, or a lean, mean, minimalist chamber piece. With Assault On Precinct 13 he’s got a few guns, a few cars, a few actors and one derelict police station, and the result, although not among his best work, is one nasty little urban exploitation feature that entertains and packs a bloody, visceral punch. The premise is gloriously simple: Several spectral, inhuman gang members chase a witness into an almost shut down precinct with intentions on killing everyone inside. One intrepid Deputy (Austin Stoker), a mysterious career criminal (Darwin Joston), a plucky secretary (Laurie Zimmer) and others are all that stands between these marauders and all out warfare. It’s a siege flick, a cop flick and an action picture all in one and works because of how low key it all is. The assault on the building itself is showcase low budget cinema and really well done as multiple silenced weapons shred through the doors and windows, but my favourite sequence is an earlier one in the film. As the gang prowls the desolated, decayed LA streets looking for suitable vehicles to hijack, a lone ice cream truck driver (Peter Bruni) finds himself right in the crosshairs of these heavily armed psychos. Then as if that isn’t bad enough, a little girl wanders up to purchase a frozen treat and, non discriminately, is gunned down in cold blood. It’s a shocking scene on its own just for the fact that Carpenter had the balls to do it and in fact on Robert Rodriguez’s Director’s Chair interview he said that he probably wouldn’t have gone that far had he made the film these days. What’s worse for me is that the girl is played by Kim Richards who starred as Tia Malone in Disney’s Escape To Witch Mountain, a film I grew up with and saw hundreds of times as a kid, so thanks John for ruining my childhood with that. Jokes aside it’s a galvanizing scene from beginning to end and even if there are way better Carpenter flicks out there overall, it’s probably one of the best sequences he’s directed in an otherwise solid pulpy action flick. Gotta mention Carpenter’s original score too which, as per usual, is brilliant.
John Carpenter’s Escape From New York is lean mean, brawny and one of the director’s best efforts, one of his leaps into non horror territory and a high concept, exploitation template that has become so iconic that he’s had to sue one production for literally copying and pasting. More iconic still is growling Snake Plissken, a nasty, uncooperative, maladjusted piece of work that has calcified into both a genre titan and one of Kurt Russell’s most instantly recognizable, badass characters. Plissken is basically a villain transplanted into the protagonist’s seat, where he gets to shake up the formula and push the boundaries of being an antihero nicely. By now everyone knows the story. The President (Donald Pleasence) ejects out of Air Force One and crash lands in futuristic NYC, now a giant penitentiary housing unwanted criminals from all over, cordoned off from the rest of the world. Snake is sent in by General Hauk (Lee Van Cleef is a sadistic snake in his own right) as a ‘fight fire with fire’ ditch effort, given twenty four hours to retrieve POTUS at an extraction point and implanted with a microchip that will blow him into hamburger helper if he doesn’t make his deadline. Cue explosions, car chases, wicked stunts and set pieces galore, done in Carpenter’s careful, tactile, authentic and slightly non-Hollywood manner. The guy just has a knack for taking formulaic premises and giving them a just-south-of-normal spin, his own flavour and one that makes cult classics that are built to last. Adrienne Barbeau, Isaac Hayes, Ernest Borgnine, freaky Frank Doubleday, Charles Cyphers, Tom Atkins and good old Harry Dean Stanton all provide standout support. My favourite aspect of the film is the original score, composed by Carpenter himself, of course. It’s a spooky, atmospheric riff that’s akin to the music in The Thing, and just has this synth-y way about it that transports you to the specific time and place of the film flawlessly, it’s a showcase example of an auditory mood board. No remake could ever touch this, it’s too idiosyncratic and special to be updated, and the sooner studios realize their never ending goose chase to capture lightning in a bottle twice is a fool’s errand, the sooner we’ll get back on track and make original contemporary films that will becomes genre classics in the future, just like this. I love Plissken’s final act of brutal rebellion, a reminder that this is not a nice guy we’re dealing with here, but one who plays by his own rules and shirks the standards, much like Carpenter himself. I imagine Plissken’s reaction to news of a remake would be similar, if not more hotheaded, than that final, lethal sleight of hand prank he pulls on a government that stabs him in the back. Solid gold.