Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) d. John Carpenter (USA)
Two elements hang heavy over any critical viewing of Carpenter’s second feature (and his first to be executed over a normal shooting schedule – his debut, Dark Star, was a college film shot in fits and starts that was later picked up for distribution, resulting in additional reshoots): 1) it is a conscious reworking of Howard Hawks’ 1959 classic western Rio Bravo with John Wayne, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson, and 2) the onscreen shooting of a young girl (played by Disney fave Kim Richards) earned Assault on Precinct 13 instant notoriety. The latter item infuriated the MPAA and more sensitive reviewers, but being that this was an unabashed low-budget exploitation piece, it became the talking point that proved, “Any publicity is good publicity.” Following its initial cool reception in the U.S., the film became a critical and commercial success in Britain, affording the young writer/director (and composer and editor) the traction to mount what would become one of the most successful independent films in history, Halloween.
But Assault is more than just a stepping stone to future success – despite its occasionally dodgy logic, Carpenter’s keen eye for character and narrative ebb and flow is already in evidence, and while he notes his own “young writer’s tendency toward melodrama” on Shout! Factory’s recent BR release, there is much to admire in his innovative staging of the standard “siege picture.”
The action kicks off with the slaying of a half-dozen multi-racial gang members by the police, who are searching for a stolen cache of weapons. The firepower, as it turns out, has indeed fallen into the hands of the criminals, and in a round-table tenement scene, four Los Angeles gang warlords (Caucasian, Asian, Mexican, Black) slice their forearms and mingle their blood as a sign of solidarity against the authorities, solemnly intoning, “For the six.” In the meantime, newly christened Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is given the task of overseeing the final hours of a to-be-shuttered police precinct (Precinct 8 in Division 13, to be exact – the inaccurate but catchier title was chosen by producers CKK after rejecting Carpenter’s original names “The Andersen Alamo” and “The Siege”).
However, Bishop’s dull assignment picks up considerably when the transportation of three hardened criminals (Darwin Joston, Tony Burton, Peter Frankland) from a distant prison is diverted to the station upon one of the prisoners falling ill. Shortly afterwards, the inhabitants are subjected to a nonstop battery of violence when, following the Caucasian warlord’s (Frank Doubleday) having gunned down the aforementioned moppet, her hysterical father (Martin West) retaliates, then seeks refuge in the nearly abandoned cop shop pursued by legions of heavily armed gang members. Badges and bad guys must now ally forces if they hope to survive the night.
The action scenes are balanced nicely with quiet moments of regrouping and plan-making, whereupon Carpenter allows the disparate characters to build relationships with one another and the viewer. Joston’s Napoleon Wilson, the most notorious of the convicts, possesses the easy, laconic charm of a latter-day John Wayne, and his connections with Stoker’s noble lawman and Laurie Zimmer’s cool-headed secretary are what give the film its heart. Burton, who appeared as Apollo Creed’s trainer Duke in the same year’s Rocky, tenders a humorously twitchy turn, bemoaning his unlucky lot in life.
The faceless hordes outside always seem just on the brink of breaching the sanctuary (shades of Night of the Living Dead), with silenced bullets strafing the walls and stacks of paper (one of Carpenter’s most inventive devices, in that we only hear the “zzzzip” of flying lead instead of the standard gunfire) or by climbing in the station’s many windows. These scenes are clearly reminiscent of any number of westerns, but the urban setting keeps them fresh. And, in this age of flutter-cut editing, the use of longer takes and attention to detail are a happy reminder that screen action works best when we can see, and care about, what’s going on.
Shout! Factory’s 2013 love affair with Carpenter continues, and the game veteran continues to deliver his laid-back brand of audio commentary – wry and smooth, he takes us through the onscreen events with mild regret over some of the missteps of youth but still enthusiastic about how well Assault holds up three decades later, celebrating familiar faces like Charles Cyphers (who would become a regular with Halloween, The Fog and Escape from New York) and classic Hollywood bad guy Henry Brandon.
On a separate audio track, Michael Felsher shares the mike with Tommy Lee Wallace, who served as art director and sound effects editor for the film. Wallace amiably discusses his long-time relationship with Carpenter (the two grew up together as kids and both later attended USC, although not at the same time) while pointing out his own voice as the police dispatch and the radio announcer, and the myriad of footfalls and squib blasts meticulously recreated for the foley soundtrack. Hats off to Felsher for being willing to travel off tangent in order to highlight some of Wallace’s other accomplishments, including a special nod to 1988’s underrated coming-of-age flick Aloha Summer, starring My Bodyguard’s Chris Makepeace and Enter the Ninja star Sho Koshugi.
Felsher’s welcome generosity extends to his 12-minute Red Shirt Pictures featurette “The Sassy One” with Nancy Loomis, as he allows the beloved cult actress – who made her film debut with Assault (as well as serving as the costume mistress) – to discuss her Carpenter-rich career (Halloween, The Fog, Halloween III) as well as her current career as a sculptor. We also are treated to a chat with Stoker in “Bishop Under Siege,” as well as a lengthy 2002 post-screening Q&A held at the Egyptian Theatre with the star and director. The extras package is rounded out by a theatrical trailer and a couple radio spots.
Assault on Precinct 13 is available now from Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE.
--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine