With his filmmaking career beginning in the midst of the new Hollywood and its touchstones in American film history, it’s perhaps easy to see why the work of John Carpenter has been somewhat overshadowed by more celebrated filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, or Francis Ford Coppola. He found a niche in the horror genre with the landmark Halloween, and he proceeded to make one idiosyncratic, wholly original, and generally skillful film after another. Some were rather uneven, particularly in recent years, but for every Memoirs of an Invisible Man, there has been The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, or They Live. Carpenter’s list of credits boasts some exceptional work — inventive, daring, visually, and technically creative — but amongst these titles, one film stands out as a favorite of many cinephiles in general and Carpenter fans in particular. Assault on Precinct 13, just his second feature film, has been released on a collector’s edition Blu-ray/DVD combo, looking and sounding better than ever with several new bonus features. The sharp transfer highlights every bit of ‘70s grain and Douglas Knapp’s exceptional cinematography belies any budgetary restraints the film may have had. Carpenter’s score is as effective, if not as memorable, as his arrangement for Halloween, and here, it sounds superb.
Taking its cue from Howard Hawks’ Western classic Rio Bravo, Assault on Precinct 13 pits a group of disparate and desperate individuals holed up in a police station (actually precinct 9) against a band of gang members bent on revenge. In his commentary track on the disc, Carpenter describes the picture as an “exploitation action picture modeled after Rio Bravo,” exploitation also apparently what the distributors had in mind when they advertised the film with the sensational tagline, “A White Hot Night of Hate!” The Hawks allusions are also revealed in the name of Laurie Zimmer’s character, Leigh, as in Leigh Brackett, writer of Rio Bravo and other Hawks films (see also: Charles Cyphers’ Sheriff Leigh Brackett from Halloween). Carpenter also edited Assault on Precinct 13 under the pseudonym John T. Chance, John Wayne’s character from Rio Bravo. Howard Hawks fun facts aside (and there are many scattered throughout Carpenter’s career), Assault on Precinct 13 deviates from wherever its inspirations may lay to form a tense and tightly constructed thriller, just 91 minutes long, equal parts action, drama, and horror, with a dash of black comedy thrown in for good measure.
It’s worth noting, as mentioned in a shabbily shot interview conducted after a screening of the film in 2002, included as a bonus feature on the disc, that Carpenter is also quick to acknowledge the influence of George Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead, an inspiration, he says, to “everybody who has made a low-budget film.” In this Q&A session, where star Austin Stoker was also present, Carpenter essentially gives the same information as in the commentary, but he does reveal some fresh pre-production detail. And while he could easily be seen as the ultimate auteur – writing, directing, scoring, editing, and occasionally shooting portions Assault on Precinct 13 – he never shies away from spreading around credit. Neither does this disc: art director and sound effects editor Tommy Lee Wallace gets his own commentary track and solo interviews feature Stoker and Nancy Loomis reminiscing about their careers. More interesting, however, would have been a conversation catching up with co-star Laurie Zimmer, who, though striking in this film, quit acting just 3 years later.
In South Central Los Angeles, a sort of brutal and treacherous urban milieu that would serve as the backdrop for many Carpenter films to come, members of a gang (an “unusual interracial” one, according to TV news reports) seek revenge on police officers who, the night prior, killed a handful of their comrades. Heavily armed and clearly depraved, they set in motion the events that crash into the unwitting hero, Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Stoker). He’s a good-natured officer on his first night out, and he’s given the less-than-glamorous assignment of watching over a decrepit police station set to close its doors. Joining him in this disparaging and temporarily mundane endeavor is Captain Chaney (Henry Brandon, Scar from the John Ford masterpiece The Searchers, reason enough for his casting), Leigh and Julie (Loomis), two secretaries about as enthusiastic to be there as Bishop is. After a brutal murder that still is the cause of considerable surprise, the victim’s father pursues the gang. He manages to kill one hood, which only further infuriates and deranges the rest. They chase him to the police station, where he enters in a state of shock, thus bringing together the two groups in a contest neither had planned. Concurrently, a bus carrying three inmates is in transit when one of the convicts grows increasingly ill, causing the bus to stop at the station. With the sick man are two other criminals; one, Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), a violent offender with a heart of gold, is sentenced to death. Now that this combustible group is firmly in place, and with the tension mounting as the gang assembles outside, lights go down, telephone lines are severed and the siege begins.
The film is truly haunting in its depiction of the ruthless hoods who, as we see dramatically and controversially early on, are capable of extreme and brazen violence. As the film sets this tone from the start, the threat is instantly heightened and never diminishes. Visually, Carpenter also emphasizes the horrific potential of their intentions by silhouetting them outside the police station as generally anonymous, dehumanized creatures. It’s a technique similar to countless zombie films, where the menace is a mass of beings rather than distinguishable individuals. The way the thugs prowl in the darkness, creeping in and out of the light, gives the lingering impression of their mobility and their constant presence. The dynamics of their advancement on the station, of their ability to approach and enter any number of ways, stands in marked contrast to those contained in the building. By comparison, our heroes are limited in their maneuverability and their options. This setting restriction was as much a result of the film’s roughly $100,000 budget as it was an effective narrative device.
In his commentary, Carpenter reveals much about the shooting of movie, from his casting of college friends to his creative geography, whereby shooting was conducted all over LA and later weaved seamlessly into a cohesive sense of definite place. Carpenter also professes his love for the widescreen, a format – his favorite – he was quick to become a master of. This was his first time shooting in Panavision and he describes repeatedly his attempts to balance the frame, his striving for simple, precise visuals, and how this new ratio contributed to what he feels is the film’s slow pacing.
More than anything, throughout his commentary Carpenter brings up the Western and the genre’s impact on his career. Of course it’s obvious here, but the evidence is also present in everything from Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken character in the Escape films to the blistering and grimy setting for Vampires, which features shades of Peckinpah and Leone. In the interview with Loomis, she notes how an original title for Assault on Precinct 13 was “The Anderson Alamo,” and during the 2002 interview, someone asks Carpenter why he has never made a real Western, a good question and one that sparks all sorts of cinematic fantasy.
Still, despite its indebtedness to previous films and filmmakers, Assault on Precinct 13 ends up entirely unique. Even with a 2005 remake, which deviates considerably from the original, Carpenter’s film manages a lasting potency. Like so many great films from the 1970s, it is dated in superficial appearances only. There’s something stimulating about its low-key production and B-movie status. Toward the end of his commentary, Carpenter laments somewhat dismissively of the film that, “They don’t make them like this anymore.” However he meant the comment, there’s no doubt about it: he’s right.