Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Assault on Precinct 13' (1976)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

I was sort of underwhelmed by John Carpenter's B-movie thriller Assault on Precinct 13 when I first saw it a few years ago, so maybe my diminished expectations helped me to appreciate it more this time around. I still think it suffers from some awkward dialogue and questionable plotting, but it's so tense and claustrophobic that it completely drew me in, and I felt the menace from the implacable gang members surrounding the deserted police station much more palpably than I remember from last time. The performances are mostly just functional, but Austin Stoker captures the sense of decency in the police lieutenant who's determined to hold his ground against the seemingly endless onslaught of gang members, and the weird sexual tension between Darwin Joston as a convicted killer and Laurie Zimmer as the station's surprisingly steely secretary keeps things nicely off balance.

I also like that Carpenter hints at complicated backstories for the lead characters but leaves the details out; it's the lieutenant's "first day" back from something, but we never find out what, and the killer bound for death row keeps promising to reveal the motives behind his crimes, but never does. We get the impression that there's some darkness behind the lieutenant's dedication to duty, or some solid moral code inside the seemingly misunderstood killer, but we never find out why. The bare-bones story doesn't have time for that kind of character development; Carpenter gives us a quick sense of who these people are, and then he throws them right into a terrible situation and watches how they react.

The influences Carpenter took from Rio Bravo (the siege of the law-enforcement stronghold) and Night of the Living Dead (the zombie-like gang members, who never stop coming and almost never speak) work well together to create a sense of dread, and I like the way Carpenter portrays the station's isolation even in the middle of a supposedly teeming city. The shock of seeing a little girl (played by future Real Housewife Kim Richards) getting shot and killed as she tries to buy an ice cream cone felt fresh again even though I knew it was coming, and that feeling of danger and unpredictability is the movie's greatest strength.

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