Anatomy of a Soundtrack | John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Earlier this year, John Carpenter released his debut studio album, Lost Themes. The acclaim it received from many music critics, many of whom would presumably be sick to the back teeth of 80s revivalism, showed that perhaps Carpenter would be wisest sticking to music rather than attempting another comeback in film directing circles. After all, The Ward wasn’t his finest moment, was it?

Its quality should not have been a surprise to anyone that has seen even only a handful of the movies he has also scored for. His growling, synthesiser-heavy compositions are almost as memorable as some of the brilliant films that he’s made. So while you may not be completely familiar with Assault On Precinct 13 as a film (rectify this immediately), there’s a very good chance that this is extremely familiar to you:

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Starting as a skittering and oppressive drum machine racket and then throwing in rumbling and pointed synth, it’s one of the most memorable title themes of any film from the 1970s – perhaps even beyond that. Snippets of it are scattered throughout the film as well, usually when tracking the movements of gang members around the soon-to-be abandoned police station they are laying siege to, but also during several other scenes featuring said hoodlums.
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 Carpenter almost takes his cue from Once Upon A Time In The West in assigning characters or groups of characters, in this case, with their own notable tune. When we first meet Napoleon Wilson, he gets a slowed down and quieter version of the main theme. It’s almost like we’re made aware that, yes, he’s a criminal as well but maybe not quite as bad an egg as the type of chaps that we see gunned down by the LAPD at the start of the film. Similarly, Ethan Bishop is given his own theme and later on, plucky secretary Julie also gets hers.

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I think that the segregation of the soundtrack like this is something that can be seen as gimmicky and perhaps an over-simplification of what a soundtrack can do for a film. In essence, however, Assault On Precinct 13 is a VERY simple film when you boil away its peripheries. Some people get trapped in an abandoned police station and are attacked by hundreds of gang members. That’s it. Carpenter could certainly have taken a more multi-layered approach to his music than this but the film doesn’t warrant it.

Instead he opts for a leaner, mood-setting and character-defining soundtrack that serves a purpose. Where it stands out is in the sheer quality of the music involved. When I rewatched the film at the end of last year, I commented on how the theme was familiar to me when I watched the film when I was 13 (fittingly enough) despite that being a first viewing. That opening theme is a stayer and has been sampled many times. Jimmy Chambers even had a go at doing a vocal version of it.

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When Carpenter made Assault On Precinct 13, the exceptional horror films such as The Thing, Halloween, Prince of Darkness and others were still in his future. Yet if you were fortunate enough to see this in 1976, you could perhaps tell from the soundtrack here, or perhaps segments of it, where the meat of his career would lie. The almost static din that fills your ears when little Kathy goes back to complain about the flavour of her ice cream could not be more of a musical horror movie moment if it tried.

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The 2005 remake decided to not even bother trying to pay homage to the original in terms of its music, instead opting for a pretty tame and by-the-numbers Hollywood thriller score. Still, at least you could say it was fitting for the film it was in. The difference was that the original’s soundtrack enhanced an already terrific and extremely influential thriller and became almost as acclaimed and revered as the film it was created for.
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