David Dudley is the executive editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.
John Carpenter’s cult gang-siege flick made sunny Southern California scary.
This month, CityLab will be rounding up essential scary movies about cities—films that speak to the anxieties of urban life, showcase urban settings to terrifying effect, or forever change the way you see the cities they depict.
A man pilots a big blue Lincoln through empty streets. We’re in “a ghetto of Los Angeles,” as an opening title tells us. The man is driving his pigtailed daughter to his nanny’s house. Why does she live in this terrible neighborhood? He’s lost, so he stops to call her from a phone booth. His daughter scampers over to an ice-cream truck that’s parked nearby for some reason, though there are no children on these streets. A black sedan cruises by, full of bad dudes with weapons. The ice cream man reaches for the revolver stashed under his dashboard. A synthesizer throbs. Terrible things are about to happen.
You can see the scares of Assault on Precinct 13 coming a mile away, but they’re still oddly shocking. (The MPAA threatened to give the film an X rating unless the ice-cream scene was cut.) The minimalist premise: A man fleeing a rampaging street gang seeks shelter in an isolated police station that’s in the process of being shut down; the gang lays siege to the station, cutting off the power and swarming it in waves, while those inside—a harried police lieutenant, a feisty secretary, a pair of convicts—try to fend them off.
Writer/director/editor/composer John Carpenter would hit horror-movie paydirt with his next movie, Halloween, but for my money its zero-budget predecessor, released in 1976, is scarier. Lifting the plot from Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, a sturdy oater about John Wayne and Dean Martin shooting a gang of rustlers, Carpenter also borrowed the story beats from Night of the Living Dead, George Romero’s hugely influential tale of the zombies that ate Pittsburgh. Here, the setting is mid-’70s South L.A., and the ghouls are gang members, the awesomely named Street Thunder.
Street punks were the villains of choice for many a Hollywood vigilante in that decade, from Dirty Harry and Death Wish to A Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs. But in Precinct 13, the gang members are more like a supernatural force—silent and implacable and apparently numberless, they never speak and don’t even groan when they’re shot. They’re just the embodiment of everything and everyone that frightened urbanites in an era of rising crime and spiraling decay. (They’re also scrupulously ethnically diverse, probably because they were played by USC grad students.)
The South Central L.A. they inhabit is all but devoid of law-abiding civilians—it’s just a featureless, underpopulated landscape of sun-blasted empty lots and tired bungalows. When the siege begins, there’s no one around to hear the gunfire, because the nearby houses are all abandoned. The police lieutenant, who, we learn, grew up in this now-broken neighborhood, has trouble processing the scale of urban disinvestment. “We’re in the middle of a city!” he says, twice. “Someone will come by.”
But no one does, of course. The city has been surrendered to the crazies. Carpenter would return to that theme, to increasingly campy effect, in Escape from New York and Escape from LA, in which America’s great cities are turned into prisons. Here, it’s played straight. The institutions of authority are crumbling and powerless, the cops unable to protect even their own. Your neighbors aren’t here, and they wouldn’t help you if they were. A decade after the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, that fundamental breakdown of the civic compact haunted audiences.
“A nightmarish poem which plays on our fears of irrational and uncontrolled violence,” one admiring critic called Precinct 13 when it played at the Chicago Film Festival in 1978. Today’s overall urban crime rate in the U.S. is a fraction of its 1970s and 1980s peak; most of the L.A. locations used in the film are in pretty good shape now (the Art Deco police station survived Street Thunder’s attack and is now a nonprofit community arts center). But, as a certain presidential candidate demonstrates when he spins his dark fantasies about “inner cities” consumed by criminality, those fears haven’t quite left us yet.