Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Back to 1976: ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13

by Heath Holland
John Carpenter’s second feature film feels like the movie that started it all.

Whenever I go back and watch early movies from some of my favorite filmmakers, it can be really surprising to see just how quickly they had developed their own style and voice. Assault on Precinct 13 is a perfect example of this. It’s John Carpenter’s second film, coming two years after his debut, the sci-fi comedy Dark Star, but it feels like it could have been his fifth, or his fifteenth. All the hallmarks that I associate with the director are here in full force: compelling characters caught in extraordinary circumstances, unique visual style, smart use of space, well-staged action, a sense of escalating dread, and of course, a memorable synthesizer score. Assault on Precinct 13 is a John Carpenter movie, but it’s also a John Carpenter movie, complete with everything that label implies.

The film is often described as a retelling of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo with elements of Night of the Living Dead added in. While it’s true that this movie was conceived as an homage to the classic western about a lawman defending his jail with the help of a ragtag group of misfits, Assault on Precinct 13 becomes something unique in the capable hands of Carpenter. The premise is virtually the same, and seems deceptively simple: a group of Los Angeles cops killed some gang members in a raid, so those gang members decide to wage war on the police. They wait until nightfall and attack precinct 13, a decommissioned police station that is being run by a skeleton crew consisting of Austin Stoker (Sheba, Baby), newcomer Laurie Zimmer, who walked away from acting just a few years after this movie, and a couple of performers that are stalwarts of early Carpenter movies, Nancy Kyes (aka Nancy Loomis) and Charles Cyphers. Darwin Joston (Eraserhead) and Tony Burton (Rocky) are prisoners inside the jail that further complicate the situation.
The similarities and influence of Rio Bravo are undeniable. Yet Carpenter takes this simple premise and turns it into something that feels absolutely epic and, more importantly, very scary. The sense of claustrophobia from Prince of Darkness is here in spades. The sense of dread found in The Fog is also here. Even the terror of being pursued by an anonymous nightmare (the gang in this movie is essentially faceless) as found in Halloween shows up in Assault on Precinct 13. Carpenter also realizes that the real story is not the attack of the police station itself, but in the human drama of that experience. Much like The Walking Dead is about the survivors, this film is about the people inside the station and the unity they must find if they are to endure.

Before the violence breaks out at the police station, there is a clear power structure. The police are the good guys, the prisoners are the bad guys, and the staff at the station are just riding the clock on another workday. But things change when the siege begins. Carpenter calls into question everything these characters know, and also everything that we, the audience, expect. Consider a scene in which a girl visits an ice cream truck on the street. Carpenter knows what we’re expecting, and he subverts that expectation, showing us that nothing can be taken for granted in this film. In his hands, the traditional “tower defense” movie takes on a whole new life. Power dynamics are shifted, gender and race roles are tossed on their head, and everyone is placed on the same level as they fight to stay alive.
In a lot of ways, Assault on Precinct 13 is a character study about people and how they act under pressure. This is familiar territory for the Carpenter fan, as it’s the same kind of thing he would revisit over and over throughout his career. Yet nothing here feels routine. While this is indeed a mash-up of Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead, Carpenter puts so much of his own distinctive brand on this thing that it feels entirely his. The way he sets up his shots, the way a distant phone booth sits in a clearing like a beacon, so accessible but so far away, the familiar POV shots of a car driving in high speeds into the darkness with the headlights offering only the faintest of illumination…this movie proves that Carpenter is an auteur, putting his unique stamp on whatever he does. It bears mentioning that Assault on Precinct 13 was written, directed, scored, and edited by Carpenter.

The cinematography was done by Douglas Knapp, who had worked with the director on his first feature, Dark Star back in 1974, but would go on to work with the camera department under Dean Cundey to capture the iconic imagery of Escape from New York a few years later. One of my favorite shots in Assault on Precinct 13 is when our survivors use an old wooden sign as a shield and slowly advance down a narrow hallway. Knapp gives us a POV shot of this as the characters move toward us, and then, once the fighting begins again, shows the same shot but with our heroes being pushed back the way they came. It’s a genius shot that conveys so much information and emotion. Similarly, the art director on this movie is Tommy Lee Wallace, who had also worked with Carpenter on Dark Star and would eventually become the production designer of Halloween and The Fog before graduating to writer and director himself, helming the much-maligned but now cult favorite Halloween III: Season of the Witch.
I realize that I’m pretty much gushing, but I can’t help it. I’m such a Carpenter fan, and I often place him at the top of my favorite directors list. It’s not that I find him infallible, because no such filmmaker exists, and I recognize this movie’s few shortcomings. For instance, the dialogue that comes out of the characters mouths can occasionally feel really canned, like it’s been recycled from a forties noir film. There’s one scene in particular between Laurie Zimmer and Darwin Joston in the third act that feels totally artificial and clunky, and the dialogue—while sharp and hardboiled—feels completely alien coming out of these characters. As George Lucas would soon discover with Star Wars, it’s easy to write snappy dialogue, but it can be harder to have your actors deliver it. This hardly matters when placed in context with everything else in this movie and how much of it succeeds. I simply find Carpenter to have a voice that speaks directly to me. There’s something dark and punk rock about the way he makes movies, but there’s also always a sense of fun.

Carpenter movies can go to some pretty dark places, and this one is no exception, but I always feel like it’s done with a grin and a sense of humor. I’ve been watching a lot of lower budget movies during this look at the film of 1976, and it’s easy to get caught up in the status quo of what that meant at the time. I’d come to accept that with low budgets comes certain sacrifices, and that you can’t make a movie outside the studio system for very little money and still have a compelling product that feels big and has things to say. Then along comes Assault on Precinct 13 to remind me that the great directors can make fantastic movies with very little resources because that’s just what they do. This movie has been a breath of fresh air for me during this series; it’s a low budget film that doesn’t feel constrained by those limits. The story plays out in a solitary location, but doesn’t feel set-bound. The cast consists largely on no-name actors, but they give great performances. This movie is evidence of what a really talented filmmaker can achieve when they’re given total creative control (as Carpenter was) and allowed to pursue their vision without interference.
It’s been fun for me during this 1976 series to see the humble beginnings of actors and directors that I admire for later work. Almost always, I can see a definite curve upward in their careers and talent as they got more confident and gained more notoriety, eventually going on to bigger and better things. The great thing about Carpenter, though, is that this movie doesn’t start at the bottom of a curve; it begins a straight line in his career that would continue for a very, very long time.

Read more of Heath Holland's writing at his blog Cereal at Midnight!


  1. A huge fan of JC but I'd only seen Assault on Precinct 13 a few years ago. The ice cream scene really caught me off guard. Truly disturbing. A great film.

    1. I wonder if that scene would be the same if Carpenter had made this movie a few years later.

  2. i still can't figure out why i didn't like it the first time i saw it. which was about a year before the 2nd viewing, when i realized it was a good movie.

    the first time, i was not that familiar with Carpenter's filmography as i was with the 2nd time. i thing i only knew The Thing. during that year, i saw most of the rest: The Fog, Prince of Darkness, They Live, Escape From New York, Halloween (yes, never saw it before). all of this mostly on Shout Factory blu-rays. i guess that helped to inform me what kind of movie maker John Carpenter was.