John Carpenter’s first two features—a sci-fi space comedy and an action-thriller—screen at UW Cinematheque on February 18 and 25.
These days, recently inducted “Grandpa Horror” John Carpenter seems to occupy his time playing video games and music, seemingly retired from the filmmaking game like some other genre masters of his day (see: Brian De Palma and John Waters). But over the next couple Saturdays in February, UW Cinematheque is offering Madison filmgoers the opportunity to revisit his first two feature films—the sci-fi comedy Dark Star (1974) on February 18, and action-thriller Assault On Precinct 13 (1976), on February 25, at 7 p.m.—both made before Carpenter hit horror-franchise gold with Halloween in 1978.
Dark Star follows the crew of the titular spaceship who’re working the equivalent of an interstellar garbage detail: they cruise around looking for “unstable planets” that may eventually threaten human colonization of their respective solar systems, and preemptively blow them up. The film opens with a transmission to the crew that amounts to “no, we can’t help repair your ship that’s slowly falling apart, but we’re all really proud of you.” A far cry from the high-minded diplomats of Star Trek, it’s much closer to the increasingly corporate reality of current space exploration.
What began as a student film during Carpenter’s days at University of Southern California (USC) gradually expanded into a feature as funding and interest accumulated between 1970 and 1974. Dark Star was a collaboration between Carpenter and another filmmaker, Dan O’Bannon, who went on to become well-established in the horror and sci-fi genres himself.
O’Bannon was in charge of the special effects on Dark Star, and later went on to write the script for Alien (1979) after briefly working with Alejandro Jodorowsky on his unmade version of Dune, as well as scripts for Lifeforce (1985), The Return Of The Living Dead (1985), and Total Recall (1990). O’Bannon and Carpenter had a falling out sometime after the release of Dark Star and unfortunately never reconciled before O’Bannon’s death in 2009. But! Carpenter did include a character named Dan O’Bannon who gets ripped apart by undead pirates in his 1980 film The Fog.
Before their feud, O’Bannon played one of four remaining crew members of the Dark Star, Pinback. He sits alongside Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) and Lt. Doolittle (Brian Narelle), who’s in uneasy command of the ship after the death of Commander Powell (Joe Saunders). Talby (Dre Pahich) is also among them, but mostly isolates himself in the observation bubble at the top of the ship.
The crew are growing their beards and slowly losing their sanity from being isolated with no discernable end to their mission. They occupy themselves however they can, by listening to country records or messing around with a captured alien life-form that resembles a beach ball or a tomato pin cushion with feet. The slow mechanical deterioration of the ship leads to a problem with the deployment of their artificially intelligent bombs, which then forces Doolittle to resort to making the bomb aware of something scarier than the void of space: phenomenology.
After cutting his teeth with Dark Star, Carpenter quickly shifted his attention to solo writing what would become his sophomore feature, Assault On Precinct 13. Its funding came through J. Stein Kaplan, another friend of Carpenter’s from his USC days. Kaplan raised $100,000 for Carpenter, and gave him carte blanche. It only took eight days for Carpenter to finish the script, and 20 to shoot it, despite it being his first experience using 35mm film instead of 16mm. Carpenter also wrote the synth-based music for the film, as he did with Dark Star and most of his subsequent films.
A very loose remake of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959), Assault shares the premise of a ragtag group defending a jail from a siege. The isolated Western town of the original is swapped out for a run-down Los Angeles neighborhood that’s more under the control of street gangs than the police, who are moving their precinct building to a new location.
The narrative tracks Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker), who’s given a boring detail for what’s supposed to be a hazing for his first night as a highway patrolman; but he’s instead forced to confront the fact that rule of law is only as strong as those who try to defend it. A citizen seeking refuge from the gang causes the station to become the target of the siege. Trapped inside alongside Bishop and the asylum-seeker are secretaries Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) and Julie (Nancy Keyes), as well as a busload of convicts supervised by Starker (Charles Cyphers). They include heroes-by-circumstance Watts (Tony Burton) and Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), a notorious criminal who spouts off tough-guy one-liners and has the skills to match.
Stuck without phones, backup, or ample ammo, the group slowly comes to the realization that they have no one to depend on except themselves. The unspeaking gang displays their Cholo (blood oath) flag to communicate how determined they really are to break into the station—regardless of the number of casualties. (In addition to Rio Bravo, the film owes more than a little to Romero’s original Night Of The Living Dead, right down to the Black protagonist.)
Both Dark Star and Assault On Precinct 13 help establish themes that Carpenter returned to time and again throughout his career. We show our true nature when cut off from society—whether that’s in the vastness of space, confines of a jail, at the Antarctic research station in The Thing (1982), in the city-wide prison of Escape From New York (1981), or even social alienation in They Live (1988)’s Los Angeles after the alien faces of the upper class are revealed.