Classic Film Kid – Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Before we even get into the review, I’ve got to say it: Oh my God, that music is so cool.
Hey everyone, it’s the Classic Film Kid here once again with another review! Today, we are going into the step into the work of director John Carpenter, and when you think his name, you generally think of masterworks like Escape From New York, The Thing, Halloween etc. But instead today, we will be looking at his career beginnings (no, we are not looking at Dark Star) by reviewing his cult action thriller from 1976, Assault On Precinct 13.
This movie is what’s called an exploitation film, something that is common of low quality independent films (B-movies) where they explore current trends or niche genres that have a cult following. This one hops on the blaxploitation bandwagon, that explores black protagonists and themes of gang violence, a very popular subgenre at the time – so popular in fact that James Bond stepped into it with the amazing Live And Let Die. It also makes this film really quite progressive: many of the protagonists are women and black people, and though people didn’t realise at the time, it really was doing quite a lot. But not only is it amazingly progressive, it is a fantastic contained action thriller and a bonafide classic.
The fact that it is a classic should be really surprising: it doesn’t break any technical boundaries, it’s not a genre that’s never been dabbled with before. It’s just 90 minutes of intense action. The reason why it is so good is because it’s done so well. The first thing we see in the film is a group of gang members attempting to break in to a police facility, but are shot down before we get to find out what they’re doing there, or who they are. The remaining members of the group are then seen taking a blood oath to avenge the deaths, and it’s a great opening scene – there is no information or backstory needed to get that these guys are ruthless cold blooded killers, and fear just emanates across the screen whenever you see them lining up a shot and killing, without a change of expression on their faces or a hint of remorse.
The most iconic scene regarding this is what I’ve come to dub the ‘vanilla twist’ moment – where this gang go around a neighbourhood looking for people to kill, and find the driver of an ice cream van and a young girl who goes to complain that her ice cream is not a vanilla twist. What makes this scene work and feel so unpredictable is that they are not killing these civilians because they have done any wrong to this gang – they are killing them because they are people to kill. It doesn’t matter whether they’re young, old, black, white, man, woman – just so long as they’re an available target to this lot, then you’re in the danger zone. This scene is also so brutal that Carpenter himself has admitted he doesn’t like the excessive gore of it, and says he was being overboard and childish. Personally, I don’t agree – whether it’s no-holds-barred or not, it’s intense and creepy as hell.
Of course, the highlights come when our main protagonists are forced to defend this closed down precinct. It’s where pretty much all the second and third act, and it’s a claustrophobic and tension-fuelled build up as the other prisoners arrive at the precinct so they can tend to a sick passenger. Again, we receive another reminder of the gang’s sheer brutality as a few of the guards and convicts are dead before they even get into the prison. People who we didn’t even know and perhaps didn’t even speak, suddenly make the enemy feel even more important. At this point during of the movie, I feel the hairs go up on the back on my neck. Oh, and goosebumps, yeah them too.
It really adds humanity when our lead characters are not there to fight these thugs – they’re just the only people left who can do it. Our lead is Lieutenant Ethan Bishop, who is there to take charge of the last night that the old Precinct 13 is open. He is joined by a skeleton staff of a couple of female receptionists, and a couple of other prisoners from the bus who have experience in weapons. That’s it. They are all the people this building has left to defend it. Having this small cast of characters means that the film can be contained and focused, and it never loses momentum for a split second. Having them also being inexperienced also adds quite a lot of tension, as while some of them have police training, like I mentioned earlier, two are simply receptionists, so they are not in the position to be fighting a gang.
I also want to discuss the score – I briefly mentioned it as a joke at the start of the review, but oh my dear sweet lord, the score for this movie just oozes cool. The whole film does – it oozes cool, grabs it, shoves it in your face then rubs it into every nook and cranny. It’s that awesome. While there aren’t any proper instruments to be found here (the whole score is built on synthesisers and drum machines), the music just feels really moody, atmospheric and tense. It fits the tone of the film perfectly and it helps convey the scale and the action, as well as the moments of breathing space throughout where the characters actually get a chance to talk to each other.
I’m really not a big fan of exposition in films, so I love it when a film can just tell a story in the camerawork and the tone, and this film is a prime example of that. While there is a lot of dialogue in it, it’s mostly banter and acknowledging the situation – nothing really that we can’t tell from the camera or the music, but enough to get across the humanity of the characters.
If I did have just one flaw with this film, it would be that it takes a little bit of time to get into its stride. After the amazing dialogue-free first few minutes with the gang, the setup feels a bit plodding. It’s not really a massive issue, and in fact it’s a necessary one, but I personally prefer to keep the tension going all the way through with a film like this – here, it just stalls for a bit. But then the moment it gets it back it’s dramatic stuff.
So overall, I absolutely loved Assault On Precinct 13. It’s a film brought to life by its tense atmosphere and John Carpenter’s own awesome music, and it’s pace is mostly relentless – there is never really a dull moment, or filler – it is merely 90 minutes of well-made, well-paced, action and it’s worth the ride. Assault On Precinct 13 gets a 9 out of 10. Now I need to watch Dark Star.
Thanks for reading, guys, your support is really appreciated. I should have a review of The Shining next week, and then I’m probably going to be going back into TV, or maybe something else! I have a lot of review ideas on my plate at the moment. But for now, have a great day everyone. This is the Classic Film Kid, signing off!
ROB ALSO REVIEWED ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 FOR THE SECOND SIGHT BLU-RAY RELEASE