John Carpenter’s career started not with a bang but a growl.
Assault on Precinct 13, released on Nov. 3, 1976, wasn’t his first film to appear in theaters. Dark Star, a goofy space comedy he made with Dan O’Bannon when the two were film students at USC in the early ’70s, got there first, but it was the movie that announced his presence to the wider world. And in doing so it contained all the elements that would define his best work: sterling technical chops, a tough-minded approach to screen violence and a wicked sense of humor.
The movie opens in South Central Los Angeles, at 3:10AM on a Saturday night. Members of a heavily armed multiracial gang calling themselves Street Thunder are making their way through a darkened alley when they’re ambushed and killed by cops from the Los Angeles Police Department. In the following days, the leaders of the gang take a blood oath that they’ll avenge their fallen brothers.
Meanwhile, new police lieutenant, Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker), is starting his first assignment: taking charge of a precinct house that’s being decommissioned. He arrives at work to find he’s responsible for a mostly empty building, staffed only by a sergeant (Henry Brandon) and a pair of secretaries, Leigh and Julie (Laurie Zimmer and Nancy Loomis). They are going through the routine of shutting down the precinct when a prison transport bus pulls in with three prisoners aboard, one of whom is sick and needs medical attention.
Before Bishop can attend to this, he’s faced with another situation. The Street Thunder gang has killed an ice-cream truck driver and a little girl buying a cone from him (in one of the movie’s most shocking sequences and one of the most memorable of Carpenter’s career.) When the girl’s shell-shocked father, Lawson (Martin West), shoots a gang member in retaliation, the gang chases him into Bishop’s precinct building. They then decide to lay siege to the building to exact revenge for the shooting that opened the movie.
Watch ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ Trailer
As Carpenter notes in the audio commentary of a 2009 home-video release of the film, what follows is an homage to both the 1959 Howard Hawks western Rio Bravo (a longtime favorite of Carpenter’s) and the revolutionary 1968 George Romero zombie film Night of the Living Dead. Inside the building are cops, secretaries, the father of the gunned-down girl and prisoners, including a notorious tough guy named Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston). Outside is the gang, intent on breaking in and killing them all.
A series of brilliantly staged action sequences commences, ending up with Bishop, Wilson, Leigh (named after Rio Bravo screenwriter Leigh Brackett) and the father barricaded in the basement and fighting for their lives as the gang members close in.
Somewhat overlooked at the time of its release, although it played at the Cannes Film Festival in the spring of 1977, Assault on Precinct 13 has come to be regarded as one of the best action films of the ’70s and one of the best of Carpenter’s career.
But it’s not just worth watching because it’s almost perfectly executed and looks way better than its $100,000 budget would lead you to believe it could; it also presages a great deal of Carpenter’s future work in fascinating ways.
Like many of the director’s horror films, Assault on Precinct 13 uses as its central plot device the idea of characters under siege by an implacable enemy. In Assault these are the gang members of Street Thunder, who have sworn a blood oath and will not stop their assault until they get their revenge or die trying. In later Carpenter movies this unthinking, unstoppable force becomes a masked killer (Halloween) or a shape-shifting alien (The Thing) or ghostly pirates (The Fog) or homeless people in Los Angeles under the control of Satan (Prince of Darkness), but the feeling is very much the same: The good guys are trapped in a tightly circumscribed location, and the bad guys are coming for them.
Additionally, with twin protagonists – cop Bishop and criminal Wilson – Carpenter starts to develop the archetype of the swashbuckling hero who will populate many of his later films. Like the characters made famous by Kurt Russell and Roddy Piper in movies like The Thing, Escape From New York, Big Trouble in Little China and They Live, Bishop and Wilson are tough and world weary, but also quick-witted and armed with a plethora of cynical wisecracks.
Watch the Ice Cream Scene From ‘Assault on Precinct 13’
On a technical level, Assault shows Carpenter already beginning to master techniques that would make such him a beloved filmmaker in the decade and a half that followed. As he did with many of his movies, he wrote the score (in addition to writing the script, editing and directing), and it’s one of his best: simple, menacing and mesmerizing.
The film also anticipates the mastery of framing and hypnotic use of elements as simple as stillness and emptiness to create tension that would define his best movies.
The famous shot that closes Halloween – when Michael Myers’ body, which was sprawled on the grass but has suddenly disappeared – is prefigured here in a shot in which the gang members have disappeared from outside the precinct house; the low-key endings of The Thing and Escape From New York are foreshadowed by Bishop and Wilson’s walk out of the destroyed precinct building; and the scenes when the gang members are breaking in through windows and doors of the precinct serve as dress rehearsals for many of the scares in The Fog, Prince of Darkness and Halloween.
In these areas and more, the movie shows Carpenter already working as a director with a fully formed artistic vision in his first major film. Over the course of his career, he has become a kind of legendary maverick, notable among film fans for the originality of that vision and for his unwillingness to bend to convention. It all begins with Assault on Precinct 13.
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