Archive for category John Carpenter

Assault on Precinct 13


“Rio Bravo” via a gristly a 1970s crime thriller.

There is a moment more than halfway through this film, when the beleaguered survivors inside an understaffed police station are besieged by seemingly endless waves of a progressive multicultural youth gang, which exemplifies what is great about “Assault on Precinct 13.” The sequence is a cacophony of broken glass, bullets, and dead bodies, as the motley crew of police, administrators, and convicts desperately try to fend off their attackers, who at times almost leap into their line of fire. Suddenly, the invasion stops. The bodies disappear. This sudden quiet and stillness becomes deafening and oppressive, which more frightening than the siege itself. The film is a gnarly mixture of ¬†frenetic, grimy, chaotic action and stunning moments of anticipatory, dread-building ambiance.

Like most successful action films, “Assault” strips its narrative of everything but the bare essentials, focusing instead on mood and visceral thrills. Essentially “Rio Bravo” placed in the decaying urban sprawl of 1976 Los Angeles, several people find themselves held-up in a nearly-defunct police precinct by a nebulous and expansive gang of hell-raisers called “Street Thunder” that are intent on murdering them all. Ostensibly the attack is retribution for the deaths of six of their brethren that were killed the previous night while robbing a shipment of automatic weapons, but their motivations are more amorphous and abstract than simple revenge. Their bizarre tactics suggestion something more symbolic.

“Assault” doesn’t waste much time on character study either. There is just enough screen-time invested in this rag-tag assortment of characters to give them basic definition and personality, without wasting it on frivolous backstory and nuance. There is the newly-promoted police lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) who has been given the task of overseeing the final night of a soon-to-be-closed police precinct in the middle of a Los Angeles ghetto, a couple of secretaries played by Nancy Loomis and Laurie Zimmer, a prison warden named Starker (Charles Cyphers) transporting prisoners to a state correctional facility but who is forced to make an emergency pit stop when one of his charges gets sick, prisoner Wells (Tony Burton) and Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Josten,) and a man named Lawson who directs Street Thunder’s attention towards the precinct when he enters the building after killing one of their own members, which was itself a retaliatory killing on behalf of his daughter.

These are characters almost exclusively defined by their situation, because nothing creates tight emotional bonds like bullets being shot at you, but that doesn’t make the performances any less compelling. In particular, despite the fact that ones a cop and the other is a convicted murderer, the brilliantly named Bishop andNapoleon become the best of buddies and carry the film with their love of sardonic humor and mutual respect for one another. Collectively they are mystified by the strange behavior of the Street Thunder gang, which seems to have an infinite supply of members and supernatural abilities. When they aren’t attacking in droves like a zombie hoard, a thick ominous cloud of mystery and portentousness lingers in the air. There is probably a compelling metaphor to be had from this metaphysical take on a gang ¬†problem(perhaps representing the insipid and incessant nature of the gang situation in L.A.) but for the purposes of this film, it is very effective.

“Assault” is John Carpenter’s second film as director, and at times it feels like it. The film is rough, raw, and unpolished, but I mean that in the best way possible. When ice cream truck drivers and little girls are getting shot in broad daylight by a gang that seems to have thousands of member, it isn’t the kind of film which should have airtight direction. This is a nasty, pulpy, 1970s action at its gritty finest.


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They Live

This is just the kind of bizarre, poorly acted horror comedy film I love. Mix in some not so subtle political commentary, some hilarious dialogue, cool special effects, and an unnecessary and way-too-long wrestling match between “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and Keith David and you have the makings of nontraditional, but great film about the dangers of mass media, consumer culture, and corporate greed.

Roddy Piper, or “Nada,” as the film likes to call him, wanders into L.A. and the film, from Denver, where he had been working happily for more than ten years. Then his factory was closed down. Nada finds work on a construction sight where he meets Frank (Keith David), who shows him a clinic where some volunteers will feed him and find him a place to sleep. The clinic, though, is not what it appears to be.

The clinic, it seems, has been broadcasting a pirate signal denouncing humanity’s corporate overlords and the mass media propaganda they send through the television and pretty much everywhere else. After a police raid, Nada comes across a box of sunglasses hidden in the walls of the church the clinic was housed in. These glasses enable Nada to see the world as it truly is, a system of subliminal messages and virtual slavery, run by aliens that are living among us.

The glasses raise a number important philosophical questions. What he sees when he wears them is a world in black and white, in which advertisements are simple messages, like “sleep,” “consume,” “no independent thought.” That sort of thing. Money is colorless paper which says, “This is your God.” He sees these messages on billboards, on television, and in magazines. What about Shakespearean plays? Moby Dick? Citizen Kane? Would these be reduced to simple propaganda? Does art exist while wearing the glasses? Is there any medium in which people can process information or is it literally all propaganda? These are not questions that the film is concerned with, but they troubled me. Really though, the point is that while where these glasses, Nada is able to see these bugged-eyed aliens walking around under the guise of being human, who have in fact been exploiting our world for years.

The aliens are described as entrepreneurs. Earth for them is a third-world country. They plan to exploit its natural resources until they are dried up, and which point they will move to another planet. When humans discover them, they just offer them money and prestige, to which the humans greedily accept, except of course Nada. As far as science premises go, this is as intriguing a premise as I can recall having seen.

Nada, after an seemingly never-ending fight, convinces Frank to put on the glasses. Together they join the underground rebellion against the alien overlords. There will be a mission to the alien base to destroy the brainwashing signal at its source. Its destruction enables all the humans to see the aliens as they truly are and makes for one of the most effective endings to film I can recall. There is also a subplot involving a woman named Holly (Meg Foster), a woman that denies the existence of aliens, comes around and joins the revolution, only to sell out in the end.

No one will mistake this film for high art. It has all and all pretty poor acting, the dialogue is sometimes ludicrous, and the film is woefully uneven. Yet this is an excellent film. Its overall esthetic is exceedingly well executed, even if certain aspect of the film are more than a little hokey, but it never loses its sense of fun. The film is inventive, wickedly entertaining, and perhaps most importantly, original. It is unrealistic to expect more from a sci-fi/horror parody that is still strangely relevant today.



The Thing

I knew this film boasted those makeup fueled body-shifting special effects seen in the early 80s, (like Videodrome, for example), but I was surprised that I found part of the film creepy and how entertaining the cast was, especially Kurt Russell as the grizzly ring-leader.

The film begins, after the stripped-down credits, with a UFO flying into Earth’s atmosphere. We do not see the UFO land, though we will see it again. Soon, we see a dog, racing across a vast plain of snow in Antarctica. The dog is pursued by a couple of men in a helicopter, one piloting it and another with a rifle, firing rounds at the dog. The dog, who initially seems a sympathetic figure, especially after the men in the helicopter start throwing explosives at the dog, reaches a science facility. The Americans at this facility dispose of the Norwegian men in the helicopter, who start shooting wildly to kill the dog.

This dog is The Thing, and the rest of the film involves the American’s attempts to understand and dispose of it. Leading this charge is Kurt Russell as MacReady, a grizzly man who apparently drinks liquor instead of eating and Wilfred Brimley as Dr. Blair, the scientist who first grasps the scope of the danger. The problem with the thing/creature is that it attacks the cells of living things and takes them over/transforms itself into a copy of the host, with its same memories. Despite the fact that the creature periodically transforms, in fantastic and grotesque ways, (my favorite is a scene in which a head grows legs like a spider and stretches free from a body), no one knows who is The Thing and who is not. Paranoia mounts, all the while winter is fast approaching.

Aside from the visual effects, which like Videodrome, are the film’s biggest asset, The Thing boasts a creepy, bassy score and strong cast (strong for this type of film, anyway.) Russell, with his leather jacket and shades lead the bunch as the ultimate survivalist. Even when the crew suspects him of being a thing and shuts him out in a snowstorm, he manages to survive. MacReady comes up with a test, applying heat to blood, that reveals the creature. He just looks so good holding that blowtorch. The rest of the crew is tied up.

At times the film defies reason. At a time when the creature’s survival benefits from stealth and secrecy, but at the end decides it will transform into a giant monster so it can get blown up by Kurt Russell. The film contains other such moments, but these are mostly forgivable, because the visual effects and the ridiculous crew (which contains a mixture of those gross tech guys and less-intense versions of MacReady) create a film which is a little scary and a lot of fun.


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