Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

“It’s an old story with me. I was born out of time.”

Assault Precinct 13 Poster

Synopsis:
A rookie cop (Austin Stoker), a secretary (Laurie Zimmer), and two prisoners (Darwin Joston and Tony Burton) find themselves under siege at an abandoned police station.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary’s not nearly as much of a fan of this cult low-budget thriller by John Carpenter as I am. Throughout his review, he compares it unfavorably with Carpenter’s earlier Dark Star (1974), arguing that Assault “could have used extra financing for some reshooting”, that “the dialogue scenes in particular need more polish”, and that while “Dark Star comes across as being a complete original… Assault comes across as being derivative”. Yet no scenes in particular stand out as needing reshooting, the dialogue is more than serviceable, and Carpenter’s overt homages to both Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (many argue it’s a remake) and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead should simply please film fanatics, given that he takes the best elements of each of these films and uses them to impressive effect in his own unique story and setting. Indeed, one marvels at how well Carpenter is able to work with the resources available to him — abandoned L.A. streets, unknown actors, his own simple and repetitive yet hauntingly effective synthesized score — to create a film with “consistently tense” atmosphere and “amazingly accomplished” low-budget action sequences.

Several of the performances by Carpenter’s little-known actors are worth calling out: Austin Stoker is nicely cast in the lead role as a young cop facing the confrontation of a lifetime in his first day on the job; Laurie Zimmer as a sultry, plucky secretary effectively channels Lauren Bacall (surely a conscious choice); and Darwin Joston is truly memorable as convicted murderer Napoleon Wilson, whose complex personality slowly emerges over the course of the film. (Click here to read more about his sadly underdeveloped career as an actor.)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Darwin Joston as Napoleon Wilson
    Assault Stoker and Joston
  • Austin Stoker as Lt. Ethan Bishop
  • A compelling homage to Hawks and other greats of film lore
  • Carpenter’s edgy, synthesized musical score

Must See?
Yes, as a deserved cult classic.

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2 Responses to “Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)”

  1. Not must-see.

    Unfortunately, I can’t jump on the cult bandwagon here. I’d seen this once before, years ago, and had completely forgotten every frame of it (never a good
    thing).

    I’m not an overwhelming fan of John Carpenter. I think he succeeded a handful of times but I find him a kind of sub-level, blue collar kind of filmmaker. His
    love of film is apparent but it doesn’t generally translate into the work of someone significantly unique. (For the record, I’ll admit to liking ‘The Thing’ and ‘Christine’.)

    ‘Assault…’, to me, is woefully pedestrian and awfully dull as an action film (esp. its first half, which has particularly bad pacing). The main problem is the
    script – it’s just not very good, and much of the dialogue is noticeably awkward. A good deal of it doesn’t even make much sense – for example, if the station
    house is under siege, aren’t the bad guys taking an awful lot of rest breaks? What are they doing during the long stretches when the targets inside the
    station are having (often) silly, mundane conversations?

    Carpenter is not famous for being an actor’s director – but here the performances are particularly uninteresting and one-note.

  2. It’s understandable why Peary included Assault on Precinct 13. John Carpenter’s sophomore effort, directly preceding his slasher-genre-defining Halloween, is essential to any study of his career. That said, Peary doesn’t stress that you have to like something for it to be essential viewing.

    Peary pointed out that it drew from Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead, which I think didn’t hurt anything considering the budget. There are some great action sequences, which Carpenter has an affinity for. However, some of the weaker elements here are also found throughout the rest of Carpenter’s career that might have kept him from breaking out from mere cult horror director status. We have a group of thinly drawn characters, so we have little investment in them, and less suspense is baked in automatically. Style does triumph over substance, albeit marginally, with the well-edited shootouts making up for the lack of development. The Carpenter-composed electronic music score hits the right tone here, but he never is able to break out from sounding chintzy. It’s acceptable here, but he could have used more musical collaborators over the years to get different effects and moods.

    Carpenter has made a handful of interesting movies (Dark Star, Halloween, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China) this being one of them. This is fun to watch as a the launching pad to Halloween, if nothing else.

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