Assault On Precinct 13

cast: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer, Martin West, and Charles Cyphers

writer and director: John Carpenter

91 minutes (18) 1976
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Contender DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 10/10
reviewed by Tom Matic

Released no doubt to coincide with the recent Laurence Fishburne and Ethan Hawke remake, John Carpenter’s original version of Assault On Precinct 13 remains the ultimate base-under-siege movie. LAPD Lieutenant Bishop (Austin Stoker) is assigned to the abandoned police station, where a rendezvous with some convicts being transported between jails takes place. The station is actually called Precinct 9 in the script, but was renamed the sexier and more ominous precinct 13 in the title, in keeping with the catalogue of misfortunes that assails the place. The number is certainly unlucky for Bishop, whose tenure at the station coincides with a terrifying escalation of gang violence in the city.

After the shooting dead of some members of a notorious gang by the police, the survivors make a blood pact, and then take to Los Angeles’ vast, stretching highways on a random killing spree. This culminates in the scene that has assured the film’s reputation and place in cinema history: the shooting dead of a little girl as she buys an ice cream. The child’s traumatised father then exacts revenge by killing one of the gang members and seeks sanctuary in the near-deserted Precinct 9, making it a target for the gang’s relentless reprisals. However he is too much of a gibbering wreck to explain what has happened, so the skeleton crew of cops and the prisoners in their charge have no idea why the building is being attacked.

The DVD comes with a commemorative brochure packed with information about the film.

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The booklet also provides an overview of John Carpenter’s career that asks: “why such disappointing films as Ghosts Of Mars, Vampires and Village Of The Damned come presented with Carpenter’s endorsement. Why on earth single out such dated, weak and derivative movies as being the work of someone whose name is increasingly turning into a warning signal to avoid his output?” Although Carpenter has undoubtedly put his name to some duds over the years, but this is not one of them. So the release of this DVD should redress the balance, and encourage anyone thus put off to ignore such a warning signal. Assault On Precinct 13 was Carpenter’s breakthrough movie, and it is easy to see how it paved the way for such groundbreaking horror thrillers as Halloween, The Fog and The Thing. As in those films, an alien, often unseen enemy besieges the protagonists of Assault On Precinct 13. However, as in Halloween, the threat is human not fantastic in nature, although Carpenter’s writing and direction endow it with a quasi-supernatural menace that is uniquely unnerving. When the police station comes under fire, the bullets seem to come from nowhere, and there is an uncanny silence in the lulls between the attacks. The gang members themselves are always silent, using silencers on their guns to help conceal their presence from passing patrol cars, and thereby isolate the precinct from the rest of the city and help. In one memorable long shot, five gang members are shown standing silently in a line in the car park in a manner deliberately reminiscent of Night Of The Living Dead.

This small number may also have been for budgetary reasons: the straitened circumstances of the shoot are outlined in the booklet, which mentions that Carpenter used himself as an extra, as well as writing the score because “I was the cheapest and best person I could get for the money.” This policy certainly paid off in this and many of his later films, in which his ominously minimalist electronic music is an essential ingredient in the generation of suspense and tension. The booklet also points out that budgetary limitations also affected the choice of genre: “unable to shoot his ideal choice of a costly western, Carpenter instead created a modern-day western style homage to Rio Bravo.” The idea of an urban western can also be seen in the original title of Carpenter’s script: ‘The Anderson Alamo’. In Assault, cars take the place of the traditional horse on the desert-like freeway, which divides and isolates more than it connects. Never has the city seemed more desolated and depopulated than in this apocalyptic vision of LA.

However the film does suggest that the city can be a place where people come together, albeit under the most desperate and dangerous of circumstances. The most enduring expression of this idea is the sexually charged banter between female police officer Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) and convicted murderer (Darwin Joston), who smoulder at each other like a 1970s’ version of Bogart and Bacall. This unlikely flirtation shows Carpenter’s gift for characterisation as well as carnage.