By David Robinson
John Carpenter, who has just received the annual award of the British Film Institute for the originality and achievement of his first two films, DARK STAR and ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, could well be the best news for the cinema in a long time. Both films were made for ridiculously little money, within the conventions of a commercial entertainment cinema, but with an outstanding wit and intelligence and precise craftsmanship that sets them quite apart from the kind of minimal budget exploitation films that have come, for instance, from the Roger Corman stable.
DARK STAR (which has just ended its run, though it demands instant revival) is the connoisseurs, rather than the poor mans, STAR WARS. ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 which takes its place at the Screen on Islington Green, resuscitates the narrative skills of the best production-line studio films of the Thirties and Forties, and improves on them. The story is nothing: a group of people, police and long-termers under escort on their way to jail, are besieged in an abandoned police station by a heavily armed group of fanatical hoodlums.
The telling is all. Carpenters script (quite different in style from DARK STAR) uses the stylized, elusive, wise-crack idiom of Forties thrillers; and his unknown players - the innocent black police officer (Austin Stoker), the saturnine gangster Napolean Wilson (Darwin Joston), the stoic, gritty heroine (Laurie Zimmer) and the frightened girl who wails inconsequentially Why would anybody shoot at a police station? (Nancy Loomis) - could be figures from an old Hawks or Walsh thriller (the film is full of allusions to Carpenters admiration for the old masters of Hollywood).
As metteur-en-scene and his own editor (the credit John T. Chance is a pseudonym) he has a dazzling precision: witness the momentary hesitation and surprise of the brutish old cop suddenly tripped by a chain thrown by Napoleon, or the magical scene where the unpeopled interior of the police station is devastated and turned into a snowstorm of flying papers and glass by gunshot, accompanied not by loud explosions but by the eerie plopping of silenced rifles.
With the same precision he controls the suspense which is the central purpose of the narrative, building up an effect, and then deflating it with a joke (the film is very funny) before instantly recommencing the build-up to sustain a rare expectant excitement. Most of the time you do not notice how it is done, but just succumb to the mesmerism of a first-rate story-teller. There is always something more than story as well: in DARK STAR the strangeness of the scene where the astronauts, like ancestor-worshippers, seek the oracular advice of their long-dead captain; here the eerie sense of evil in the elusive presence of the faceless, half-seen besiegers as they lurk and dart silently in the trees across the familiar boulevard.