Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
John Carpenter’s filmography is a curious animal, subject to both wild scrutiny and glorious celebration. What’s more, his work has been remade, twisted and contorted by both genre stalwarts and studio remit with wildly different results – from the heinous [the] Fog to the solidly entertaining Assault on Precinct 13. It’s only now with him touring and recording as a musician that the consensus has shifted back where it always belonged. Returning to the LA-based Precinct, Second Sight have released a gorgeous restoration of the very same classic that kicked off a run of genre greats that stretched from 1976 to the early 1990s.
Before getting onto the film in question, the distributors treatment of this classic deserves recognition of its own. Second Sight’s release of Assault on Precinct 13 cleans the image up beautifully while retaining every bit of grime, fuzz and nihilism that has seen the film stand the tests of time, more interesting, however, is the contained extras which are presented with the exhaustiveness you’d expect from a BFI release and the phenomenal breadth of material they have at their disposal. Whether its Live Q&A’s with their awkward audio quality or interviews with the principal players, everything that could possibly be attached to this released is present and correct. Most interesting of all, though, is the inclusion of Carpenter’s first short film from his time at the USC School of Cinematic Arts in Captain Voyeur. While clearly the work of a student filmmaker, having this on the disc is an incredible coup and a fascinating one at that. Despite being silly there is a genesis of Halloween’s now legendary stalking camera work to be found, for that alone, it’s a fascinating insight into the early career of one of American cinema’s most underrated exports.
Onto the headline act, Assault on Precinct 13 has rightfully become the siege film by which all others are measured. An aspect of the film which has been unjustly neglected is Carpenter’s ability to coalesce many plot threads into one.
The very first scene sees the police shoot down 6 members of the ethnically diverse LA gang, Street Thunder, other members of which decide in a wordless scene that they are going to exact bloody vengeance on anybody and everybody. Elsewhere, Austin Stoker is Lt. Bishop and on his first night on the job he is overseeing the closure of the titular precinct. He eventually plays host to a bus that was moving prisoners across the country, with one of them ill and needing rest they pick Bishop’s Precinct to recollect before moving on. The final piece of the jigsaw is a Father and Daughter who are driving the streets looking for their nanny’s house, stopping to phone for directions the Daughter goes to get an ice cream where she crosses the path of the rampaging street thunder gang who callously shoot her dead. An act that sees her Father (Martin West) kill the guilty warlord before fleeing to the Precinct, thereby kick-starting the titular assault.
The siege itself could be compared to the final stand of any zombie film only it lasts in excess of half an hour or the last scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Those are vital comparisons as they are the only real ways to contextualize the sheer number of antagonists the skeleton crew of Lt. Bishop, Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) and Wells (Martin West) face. Wave after wave of heavily armed assailants, all of whom are fighting to their very death, Carpenter couldn’t stress the threat more. That translates into one of the finest scenes in all of the director’s filmography, up there with the interrogation in the Thing or the stalking POV of Michael Myers in Halloween.
As the Street Thunder gang cut all outside communication and begin their first attack, the violence on display from both sides continues with no end in sight – likewise, the score slowly escalates to follow suit with Carpenter’s signature synth accompanied by a subtle and suitably moody string section. The scene builds and builds only for to the bullets and the music to end abruptly. The survivors within the walls of the battered police station silently exchange glances, with everyone terrified, exhausted and confused at the position they find themselves in. The mutual feeling of being lucky to survive is absolute and tangible – the silence absolutely deafening. Whenever I think of Assault on Precinct 13 this is the scene that always rushes to the front of my mind, equally, it’s the scene that cemented its legend. And it’s not alone, as luck would have it the film is composed of scene after iconic scene of tangible pressure and intensity.
Whenever films within earshot of the 1970s are discussed, they are always framed as dated and while there is certainly a case to be made here, there is a much more intriguing way of looking at Carpenter’s 1976 film. Both the 1970s and now are times of great unrest, both times see police brutality as a consistent. With this in mind, Assault on Precinct 13 becomes a lot more current. Carpenter’s script depicts a time of anger and nihilistic apathy in which the systematic murder of the police becomes an option, albeit a frightening one. In times like this, not only is Assault on Precinct 13 the high point of the siege it’s also a scarily relevant “what if” scenario.