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Flashback: on 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13

It’s incredible. In fact, it’s astonishing upon looking back, that a full half of John Carpenter’s intitial six feature films are bona-fide masterpieces. The other two being 1978’s “Halloween” and 1982’s “The Thing”. But “Assault on Precinct 13” was the first one that really showed Carpenter’s stuff, after debuting with his low-budget, extended “student” film, “Dark Star”(which itself holds up quite well)in 1974. Originally penned by John as “The Anderson Alamo”, Carpenter’s inspiration for “Assault on Precinct 13” was creating a hybrid of Howard Hawks “Rio Bravo” and George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”. But the western aspect was changed to an L.A., inner-city police station. And the “zombies” were transformed into revenge-thirsty gang members. The results were extraordinary. And besides writing and directing duties, Mr. Carpenter also composed the marvelous music score, and edited the project himself. Eat your heart out, Orson Welles. The genius casting decision of using an African-American actor(an excellent Austin Stoker) in the leading role of Lt. Ethan Bishop was a page taken right out of Romero’s debut. And the western-influenced personage of co-star Darwin Joston’s Napoleon Wilson could be found in any number of oaters from Howard Hawks or John Ford—the reluctant anti-hero who makes good. I’ve never shaken the impact that “Assault on Precinct 13” had on me when I first saw it on late night cable television, sometime during my high school years(probably somewhere between 1980 & 1982 is my guess), but I had forgotten just how superb it is. Although the creative strength of his output declined rapidly by the 1990’s, I’m realizing now that it’s totally reasonable to mention Carpenter’s name in the same breath as Cronenberg and Lynch. Yeah, he’s that good. And “Assault on Precinct 13” is exhibit #1.

Without divulging too much of the plot, I’ll tell you that the wheels are set in motion for “Assault on Precinct 13” with an act of unspeakable violence enacted upon a child. Subsequently, the girl’s grieving and manic father executes a gang leader, and then seeks refuge in a soon closing and nearly abandoned police precinct. Mute from his trauma, the scattered officers and support personnel are unable to determine why the man has come there. And then the bullets start to fly. Before all that occurs, we witness a bus transporting three prisoners from one facility to another. When one becomes violently ill during the ride, the fateful decision is made to stop at the nearest precinct to seek medical attention for him. All of a sudden, a nearly abandoned station house, in a very isolated area, becomes an unusually busy place. And soon it’s under direct siege. Then the unlikeliest of combined forces, battle for their lives against a rabidly approaching gang swearing a blood oath for revenge.

No aspect has proved more controversial(or off-putting)in “Assault on Precinct 13” than the quick, brutal shooting death of a ten year-old girl. Watching it for the first time you are bound to jump right out of your seat at the pure audacity of the scene. Carpenter himself claims that only youth and stupidity gave him the courage to include such a horror in his finished film(he actually tricked the ratings board into thinking he was going to edit it out). Carpenter has claimed since, that he regrets the inclusion of the shocking murder of an innocent, but I(for one)am glad he exhibited such a set of cojones in 1976. That horrible act of unprovoked violence, set the ball of the main plot line rolling like no other circumstance could. Appease yourself this way: former child actress Kim Richards is 49 years-old, alive and well, and embarassing herself regularly on one of those ridiculous “housewives” reality shows. I mean, I can’t think of anything more horrendous than having to sit through one of those. Also, Ms. Richards is Paris Hilton’s real-life aunt for crying out loud! So, all of a sudden, getting plugged in the chest and having a blood “squib” go off doesn’t seem so bad any longer, does it? I like to be able to put things in perspective for you.

I want to be on record as claiming that the character of Napoleon Wilson was a precursor to Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken from Carpenter’s 1981 offering, “Escape From New York”. The hardened criminal, referred to with awe for unspoken crimes, his reputation preceding him all the way. Both are called into action, although only one is given a promise of pardon. You know, if Darwin Joston never did anything again(he did, appearing in David Lynch’s 1977 “Eraserhead”, as well as John Carpenter’s 1980 offering, “The Fog”)he would remain iconic for his Napoleon Wilson character alone. Searching for a smoke, tripping up the warden with his chains, and playing “potatoes” with Tony Burton from the “Rocky” franchise—Wilson is bad-ass cool. The alluring Laurie Zimmer as Leigh, barely ever did anything again, but makes her mark here with a somewhat muted and understated performance. It relies on a naturalistic style that was prominent in the 1970’s, and Carpenter offers that she “hated her dailies”—but I think Ms. Zimmer is being way too hard on herself. She’s an antidote and buffer between the two strong leads of Joston and Stoker. And as Lt. Ethan Bishop, Austin Stoker is just amazing—an African-American policeman who is confident, commanding and decisive, while still just a bit green around the gills after his brand new promotion. A bit involving him finding some profane wording carved into an officer’s desk(Bishop confesses that he did the deed himself some twenty years back, when he was a troubled youth)is wonderfully written and handled—you never hear or see what it says. And as the first person in the movie to exhibit any decency towards Wilson, their brief partnership and mutual trust is made palpable with the simple utterance of the word “sorry”. The film also contains the debut performances of future Carpenter staples Nancy Loomis as Julie and Charles Cyphers as Starker.

John Carpenter would not become a household name until two years later when he unleashed Michael Meyers and “Halloween” on an unsuspecting world. And you should know that “Assault on Precinct 13” was released to mixed reviews and tepid box office returns in November of 1976. Its reputation didn’t begin to grow exponentially until it played at Cannes in May of ’77. Many still call it John Carpenter’s forgotten classic. And make no mistake: it was his first masterpiece.     Grade:  A

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2 comments on “Flashback: on 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13

  1. “child actress Kim Richards is 49 years-old, alive and well, and embarassing herself regularly on one of those ridiculous “housewives” reality shows. I mean, I can’t think of anything more horrendous than having to sit through one of those.”

    (Slow. Dramatic. Clap.)

    Bravo, sir.

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