February 25, 2012

LIFESTYLE: Assault on Precinct 13

by A.G. Hurt

Well now that I’ve established myself as claiming to have some sort of legitimacy as a music writer, I think it’s time to branch out into other, more varied pursuits. Like food criticism, maybe. Or I could try my hand at technology writing, but in reality, I’m halfway to being a Luddite; I’m typing this on a keyboard fashioned from bark and leaves. What about relationship advice? Dear Austen has a nice ring to it. But alas, I’m bitter and despondent, and any of my answers would likely be far from desirable. Actually, though, despite this article not being about that, go ahead and send your advice questions (relationship or otherwise) to aghurt@umail.iu.edu. Maybe I’ll actually be able to provide some sort of a valuable input (probably not).

Anyway, I have actually settled on a topic, and that’s film. I’ve written a couple of movie reviews, I watch entirely too much television and I have an opinion on whether or not Han shot first (he did, damnit). This makes me as qualified as anybody to be a film critic. I’m a little too lazy to be on the cutting edge of new releases, though, so I’ve settled on rummaging through Netflix’s repository of streamables, hopefully finding the best and worst of whatever I haven’t watched yet or have the urge to watch again. So then, dear readers (or reader, I imagine, if I’m being totally honest), where did we land for the inaugural choice of this potentially continual column? Well, think John Carpenter.
No, not Halloween. Not The Thing either. No, not that one. Or that one. Or even that one. How do you even know about In the Mouth of Madness? Fine, it’s Assault on Precinct 13. And not the terrible 2005 remake I’ve mercifully never seen but the 1976 cult classic original. I’d never seen it until this evening when I curled up awkwardly in front of the warm glow of my computer screen, a bag of popcorn at the ready. I didn’t expect much going into it, as John Carpenter’s work has been hit or miss for his entire career, but I was honestly quite impressed.

See, the film was made on a shoe-string budget in just 20 days with a cast of no-name actors and an intensely minimalist plot. A cop, some prisoners and a few secretaries are trapped in a soon-to-be-closed police precinct under siege by crazed criminals. Why is the station closing? No answer. What crimes did the inmates commit? No answer. Why are the criminals going nuts and attacking in droves? No answer. But it doesn’t really matter, it works as a brilliant framing mechanism for a tense, direct story of a fight to survive.

Modern action films rarely touch on the simplicity one finds in many of Carpenter’s early films, with Escape from New York springing to mind immediately. Carpenter has always had a mastery of direct, simple plots, with little layers of intricacy available to those willing to delve. I actually like quite a few of his more underrated or critically derided films, like John Carpenter’s Vampires or the previously mentioned In the Mouth of Madness (which is actually far from simple, but that’s beyond the point).
Similarly to many other Carpenter films, the movie is slow to start, with many long, establishing scenes for probably the first third or so of the film before you settle into the siege. The simple camera work and seventies vintage really brings to mind other cult classics like Dawn of the Dead and, especially, The Warriors.

All that said, you may or may not enjoy the film. The acting is fairly wooden and the plot, as mentioned, is pretty thin with little to no development. Many plotlines are left unresolved, likely intentionally to retain an air of mystery about all the proceedings. If you like John Carpenter and his particular brand of action film, Assault on Precinct 13 might be right up your alley. If you want something a little deeper and more polished, keep on clicking through that stream list.

Have suggestions for a streamable I should look into? Once again, send me a message at aghurt@umail.iu.edu. I’ll definitely make an effort to look into anything suggested.

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