CULT CORNER: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Is John Carpenter’s low-budget siege thriller still a nail-biting experience over forty years later?

Who made it?: John Carpenter (Director/Writer), J.S. Kaplan (Producer), C.K.K. Corporation.

Who’s in it?: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer, Tony Burton, Nancy Kyes, Charles Cyphers.

Tagline: “A cop with a war on his hands. His enemy… an army of street killers. His only ally… a convicted murderer.”

IMDb rating: 7.4/10.

Assault on Precinct 13 is one of the definitive examples of no-frills cinema. Shot on a frankly inconceivable $100,000 by relative amateurs, it remains one of the most sure-footed and handsome low-budgeters of all time. The reason is simple: Director John Carpenter. Then just a film school graduate with student project Dark Star to his credit, Carpenter took his increased resources and ran with them. Though effective as a siege thriller, the picture also follows an auteur’s cinematic awakening. Precinct 13 is ground zero for the icon who later delivered claustrophobic masterpiece The Thing, possessing a knack for widescreen photography and hauntingly catchy music. It’s all right here… on a budget that would have turned most helmsmen into pools of nerve-jangled sweat.

Unlike the pointless 2005 remake, the plot here is as stripped-down and simplistic as possible. In the crime-ridden ghetto of Anderson, Los Angeles, Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is tasked with manning the local precinct before its closure. It seems like an easy enough task, but when a terrified man bursts into the station with gang members on his tail, it is the cue for a night of warfare. The gang, dubbed “Street Thunder,” are determined to kill everyone inside. With the phone lines down and ammo in short supply, Bishop turns to prisoner Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) for help.

Assault signalled the arrival of a momentous talent but it also works considerably well as a genre piece. This high-tension melding of Night of the Living Dead and Rio Bravo is still highly enjoyable, unsettling, and cool. I defy anyone not to get a kick out of Carpenter’s synthesised main theme, which immediately sets a dangerous and unpredictable tone with a touch of futurism. That reference to Rio Bravo isn’t misplaced, of course, as the filmmaker has considered the bulk of his work to be modernised Westerns. His editing is billed under the name John T. Chance – John Wayne’s character in Bravo – and the storyline is pure Howard Hawks. Instead of the Wild West, Carpenter’s screenplay – originally dubbed “The Anderson Alamo” – plays out in a new frontier that is technologically-advanced but no less deadly. The gang is a largely faceless bunch that, like the zombies in Living Dead, never stop coming. They are the personified threat of unmotivated attack.

To newbies in 2018, Precinct 13 could be deemed hokey or even a little slow. It’s true that the director takes his time laying out the plot threads, and that the aesthetics are occasionally cheesy, but everything works here to create a unique sense of dread. Shots go on longer than they should, dialogue is kept to a bare minimum, and the stinging sounds of Carpenter’s threadbare score almost outstay their welcome. The suspense is so carefully modulated that when the bullets really start to fly, it’s almost a release for the audience. Assault has a mood to die for, and the director keeps us in a vice-like grip for the entire ninety minutes.

We also care because the protagonists are so well-defined. Stoker’s Bishop is an ideal leading man; strong, resourceful and determined to protect his fellow captives. Like Living Dead‘s Duane Jones, he is also an African-American atypically cast in a role that Hollywood studios at the time would have no doubt whitewashed. Stoker is eminently likeable, and we understand why convicted murderer Wilson would follow his lead. As Napoleon, Joston steals the acting plaudits on charisma alone. He’s the morally-dubious anti-hero with a ridiculous name that Carpenter would bring back in Escape from New York‘s Snake Plissken; laconic, tough and partial to a one-liner (“Got a smoke?”). There’s also fine work from Rocky‘s Tony Burton as fellow prisoner Wells, and Laurie Zimmer as Hawksian “damsel” Leigh. The cast keeps us sympathetic to their plight and elevate the material.

The real star of the show, though, is Douglas Knapp’s lighting. Assault looks a lost costlier than it is, and the beautiful photography really brings energy and life to the stage-bound settings. His sterling work enabled Carpenter to get accustomed to anamorphic lenses, and the director exploits the boundaries of his Panavision image with complete confidence. We’re always waiting for a thug to jump out of the shadows, and Carpenter would later bring the same twitchy, paranoid staging to Halloween. For the time and budget, this is truly marvellous-looking exploitation that has weathered the decades better than the filmmakers could ever have imagined.

All this time after it played to appreciative grindhouse audiences, Assault on Precinct 13 is still a thoroughly impressive B-movie that shows you don’t need a blockbuster budget to elicit thrills. It could still be my favourite Carpenter film; a total classic that is a textbook example of how to build and sustain suspense.

Best Scene

The infamous “ice cream scene” could have given the film an NC-17 rating and remains a true punch in the gut. Spoilers.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The assault takes place on Precinct 9, Division 13. Many have noted the title misnomer, since there is no “Precinct 13″ in the film. C.K.K., the film’s distributor, was responsible; they rejected Carpenter’s titles and came up with the name Assault on Precinct 13 (which they felt was more ominous-sounding) during post-production.
  • The story that Bishop tells about his father sending him to the police station when he was six-years-old with a note, is actually a true story of Alfred Hitchcock.
  • Carpenter wrote the score in three days. He made three to five separate pieces of music and edited them in accordingly. It didn’t become available to buy until 2003, through the French label Record Makers.
  • Assault on Precinct 13 was a bigger hit in Britain than America. Largely because British audiences understood and enjoyed the film’s similarities to American Westerns, whereas US audiences were too familiar with the Western genre to fully appreciate the movie.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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