John Carpenter may arguably lay claim to the most extraordinary run of pictures in mainstream cinema. Thirteen works of genre-bending brilliance, beginning with the lost and spaced astronauts of his debut Dark Star (1974) and culminating with one of the greatest bouts of fisticuffs ever committed to film in They Live (1988). His career may never have entirely recovered from the Chevy Chase debacle that was Memoirs of an Invisible Man a few years later (although In the Mouth of Madness from 1994 remains sadly underrated), but his two bona fide masterpieces came early and in quick succession.
Most people are familiar with Halloween (1979), the film that took the lessons in suspense learnt from the best of Hitchcock and showed Brian De Palma what could really be done with them. In creating ‘The Greatest Horror Film Ever Made’, Carpenter masterfully utilised the darkest recesses of his widescreen frame to instantly establish the rules of the slasher movie for the countless young pretenders that followed in its wake. In terms of directorial control, the spatial negotiations of the planes within his frame, the sheer commitment to scaring the shit out of you, Halloween is unsurpassed within his body of work, but it was his previous feature, made three years earlier that would remain his crowning achievement.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) was the first of Carpenter’s films to tip its hat to director Howard Hawks, an affinity that would echo the loudest with his remake of The Thing six years later. Superficially a re-imagining of Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) in its amplification of the earlier film’s final set piece, in which a sheriff’s office holding a dangerous prisoner staves off an invading horde, Assault on Precinct 13 is very much a contemporary re-rooting of the Western. In much the same way that previous generations of filmmakers utilised the tropes of the genre to comment on modern socio-political concerns, Carpenter took the backbone of Hawks’ film to proffer a razor sharp examination of race relations, sexual politics and attitudes to authority in 70s America, creating a morality play of sorts of breathtaking formal rigour that ultimately questions the very nature of humanity and our notions of civilisation itself.
One can usually guarantee that at the end of October a cinema showing Halloween won’t be too hard to find, but the chance to see Assault on Precinct 13 on the big screen is much more of a rarity (I’ve still yet to see it play from a print). So when you receive an email letting you know that Vanishing Point, the company responsible for recent interactive, theatrical pop-up events such as a screening of Hitchcock’s Psycho at the Bates Motel or Desmond Hurst’s Scrooge at Scrooge and Marley’s Counting House, the chances of taking out a few pieces of furniture in the rush to your PC to book tickets rises dramatically.
Taking over the Old Police Station in New Cross on Saturday 24th March, Vanishing Point are hosting a ‘siege screening’ amongst the cells, police procedural signs, period rooms and operations yard of a disused Police Station dating from 1912. The guys in charge remain tight-lipped on the specifics of the night that will unfold, but we’re promised “A White Hot Night of Hate” amidst the police, prisoners and members of the Street Thunder Gang, all fuelled by a black market bar and electronic DJ soundtrack.
Tickets are now available at www.vanishingpoint.org.uk for what promises to be an extraordinary evening, a chance to see not just Carpenter’s best film, but an unqualified masterpiece and a strong contender for the best American film of the 70s.