VINTAGE CABLE BOX: “Assault on Precinct 13”

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“Anybody got a smoke?”

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“Assault on Precinct 13”, 1976 (Austin Stoker), Turtle Releasing

Violent crime and gang activity exploded in the turbulent 1960s. South Central Los Angeles was a veritable hodge-podge of gangs, the children of the poor bathed in the anarchy and the blood of their ancestors. They came to America and were shunted away to live in decrepit conditions. The vast migration of whites had started a decade earlier and bedroom communities were established to keep the middle class safe from the poor ethnic variations.

“Assault on Precinct 13” comes along at the right time; an exploitation movie in a largely untested genre (the “gang” movie) with a familiar narrative – in this case, a circle-the-wagons scenario. Lt. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is assigned to babysit a defunct precinct building in dangerous Anderson, Los Angeles. Idealistic and determined, he remembers his childhood home four blocks away, and how he walked out of Anderson when he was old enough.

A prisoner transfer bus stops at the precinct to care for a sick inmate. On the bus are Wells (Tony Burton) and Napoleon Wilson (bad-ass Darwin Joston), who is moving to death row. Meanwhile, a young girl (Kim Richards) is murdered by the leader of the Street Thunder gang. The girl’s father kills the leader, and runs to the precinct building for protection. Combine these three elements and we have an amazing saga. Hordes of gang members descend on the precinct building, cutting the power, and cops join forces with criminals to defend precinct 9, division 13. They use silencers on their guns and remove bodies so no one will know what is happening.

Carpenter merges elements of two disparate genres: the western, and the horror movie. Carpenter’s synthesized score of stings and minor keys play like a rough draft for his famous “Halloween” score, accompanied by┬áthe clean, grain-less night photography and use of shadow, “Assault on Precinct 13” plays like a horror movie, but owes more to “Rio Bravo”, a favorite film of Carpenter’s. The members of the gangs are like faceless entities; robots trained to kill, or the living dead single-minded in their lust for revenge. They are unafraid, and that’s what makes them and this movie completely terrifying. This is a real-world situation. This is something that could happen anywhere at any time.

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What’s innovative about “Assault on Precinct 13” is the timelessness of the look. The movie could play today (it was poorly remade in 2005). The lighting design and the cinematography would become a staple of later Carpenter movies like “Halloween”, “The Thing”, and “Prince of Darkness”. Some of my favorite bits occur toward the end of the film. After Bishop shoots a gas tank, burning the remainder of the gang members to death, cops finally take control of the building. After the smoke clears, all the backup cops see is a pile of bodies and three brave souls, a cop, a criminal, and a secretary, and their shell-shocked charge, the girl’s father. When the cops try to take Napoleon away, Bishop rebukes them and says simply to Wilson, “It would be a privilege if you’d walk outside with me.”

There’s so much to pick at with this movie. The characters speak volumes without uttering a single word. The dialogue is kept to a minimum; the proverbial picture being worth a thousand words. Communication is imparted through eye contact and mannerisms. Each of the main characters exist as archetypes: the authority figure, the criminal, the wise-ass, the coward, the brute. It probably wasn’t meant to be picked apart or studied, or analyzed. According to Carpenter, the distributors just wanted a simple $100,000 exploitation movie, but they got so much more.

“Assault on Precinct 13” aired on The Movie Channel as part of a retrospective of John Carpenter movies. Among them, “Halloween”, “Dark Star”, “Escape From New York”, and “The Thing”. Carpenter would go on to direct Stephen King’s “Christine”, “Starman”, “Big Trouble In Little China” and many other fine examples of genre film-making.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

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“They Live” is a 1988 American satirical science fiction horror film written and directed by John Carpenter. The film stars Roddy Piper, Keith David and Meg Foster. It follows a nameless drifter (called “John Nada” in the credits), who discovers the ruling class are in fact aliens concealing their appearance and manipulating people to spend money, breed, and accept the status quo with subliminal messages in mass media.

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The first time I saw the movie was on something called the Universal Debut Network; it was a syndicated movie package that Universal Pictures sold to independent networks, I saw it in 1990, it was on Channel 11 here in New York City. The Universal Debut Network was the pre-cursor to all the syndicated series Universal would show, but at first they started with movies like “They Live”, “Prince of Darkness”, “the infamous extended TV version of the movie, “Dune”, where David Lynch took his name off the credits. Apparently Lynch said, “wait a minute, this movie makes sense now, I’m taking my name off the picture!” So after this run of pictures, shows like Hercules and Xena came on the air because they were thinking about putting together a fifth network at the time.

So how do we look on politics, censorship, liberalism, conservative ideology now as opposed to 1988? In Carpenter’s fantasy, these things are just gradual with no tipping point, no rhyme or reason, but I think certain things happened to bring us a “They Live” situation, like 9/11, obviously 9/11 destroyed our country but in a slow, gradual way, like death by a million cuts.

There’s a great line in a sci-fi movie from 1982, “Endangered Species” starring Robert Urich and JoBeth Williams, where Urich says, “If what’s going on around here is organized, you don’t wanna go up against it! The government. The right wing. The left wing. Mercenaries. The mob. It doesn’t make much difference if you get in their way!”

To me, it’s allegory, like all great science fiction. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” – in the 50s, it was allegory for the Cold War and Communism. In the 1978 version, it was about the “Me” Generation and pop-psychology. In the ’93 remake, it was allegory for disaffected youth and generation X.