“Assault on Precinct 13” is a chilling, stone-cold masterpiece that deserves more love and attention among John Carpenter devotees.
In honor of legendary genre filmmaker John Carpenter’s appearance at Texas Frightmare Weekend in Dallas, Texas, May 26-28, 2023, we’re spending the week honoring some of the Master’s lesser-heralded films. Welcome to John Carpenter Tribute Week!
Assault on Precinct 13 holds a special place for me, being the first JC film I saw on VHS — around 1984 to 1985.
We’ve all got a story of how we got into watching genre films, whether staying up on a Friday night in the UK to watch Hammer re-runs with my dad or watching less salubrious films such as Zombi at my cousin’s home in the school holidays. The latter is where I first discovered Assault. I’d seen cops and robber films (which I assumed this to be). But I wasn’t prepared for this as it unfolded in front of me.
Especially the ice cream bit.
This was a genuinely scary film, as I didn’t know how it would end up. The hero figures were kind of blurry, and characters were dropping left, right, and center. I’d never seen anything like it, and it was forever burned into my mind. Even at that young age, I knew I’d seen something so different from the other granite-chinned, leaden action films that were so prevalent at the time.
So, for those who are unaware or have never heard of Assault on Precinct 13, this is a quick run-through of the plot:
Following an LAPD ambush in which members of a local gang, Street Thunder, are cut down, the four main leaders swear blood vengeance and take to the streets to randomly kill police and the public alike. Ethan Bishop is on his way to man the last night of service for the decommissioned Precinct 13 as a newly promoted officer. The Precinct building is old, dilapidated, and has a skeleton crew ready to close up and move on to their next post.
The Street gang targets an Ice cream seller and murders a young girl whose father pursues and kills one of the gang lords, which triggers a night of bloody violence as they give chase to the almost abandoned police building.
Just to add further spice, a prison transfer must be stopped due to the serious illness of one of the men.
What follows is a full-on night-time attack on everyone in the Precinct building as the Street Lords lay siege as only the death of everyone there will satisfy their lust for revenge.
What Assault on Precinct 13 has is an absolute embarrassment of talent in every facet. As I’ve got older, I recognize just how ahead of its time it really was and how JC looked to the films of Hawkes, with obvious nods to Romero / NOTLD, to make this razor-sharp classic without an ounce of fat.
It has so many firsts that others picked up and used, including the smart-alec anti-hero, the subverting person in charge from white to a person of color, showing that women could be resourceful and kick ass when need be, and showing those in positions of authority to be less than useful at their jobs.
All these tropes would become the norm in the years that followed its release.
This is one cold film; it takes no prisoners and makes that plain right from the outset.
The scene where Kathy is killed, ice cream in hand, retains the power to shock now because of how matter-of-fact it was, and I spent the rest of the first viewing completely shocked that this could be shown on film.
The gang shows their smarts by first isolating the station building and then systematically removing all traces of their handiwork using silenced weapons. This adds to the effect as bodies jerk silently as the shots hit home.
Circling back to comparisons with other films, it’s said that this was his remake of Rio Bravo. I don’t know if this is correct; I’ve never seen that film. But it shares more with Night of the Living Dead in terms of the sustained attack by the gang, whose slow, deliberate, and sometimes stealthy movements could almost be zombie-like — although I could be reaching here.
I don’t think Carpenter ever made another film like Assault on Precinct 13 which was so horrific in the disposal of life.
In other films, Carpenter showed horrifying deaths that were fantastical and a by-product of the story they were in. Halloween, because of that possible supernatural lean, was not as shocking to me as this was. And I think it was because of the lionizing in the horror press that it had received, plus the sequels and unfair comparisons, that made Halloween something else in my mind. With that film, I was expecting the carnage that was offered on screen.
However, I wasn’t prepared for Assault in any way at all.
The film is nothing without its stellar performances, including some familiar genre faces.
The entire cast delivers and conveys the hopelessness of the situation as the night progresses.
For me, watching Assault on Precinct 13 for the first time, the stand-out was Darwin Joston as Napoleon Wilson. Despite being a criminal, he was cool and able to mete out justice whenever the opportunity arose. I believe he was one of the first anti-heroes that soon became ubiquitous in the 80s.
After some rewatches, it is now Austin Stoker as Lt. Ethan Bishop who shines brightest for me — newly promoted and determined to do the right thing right to the bitter end.
Completing the core trio is Laurie Zimmer as Leigh, who played as prototype final girl.
The theme is also one of Carpenter’s best and matches the film completely. It has that sense of foreboding, with building synths like the sirens from a police car or screams in the night. Alex Cox (Repo Man) said on Moviedrome that it inspired house music in the States. I do know a similar arrangement was used in a home video game by Bomb the Bass for Xenon 2. Once heard, it’s in your head for days, which is the mark of something great.
Everyone has those films that they will stop and watch whenever they come on, never growing tired of them. Jaws is one of those for me, as is Enter the Dragon. And Assault sits proudly among that elite company, along with Carpenter’s masterpiece, Escape From New York and The Thing.
It might be that you think of this as one of Carpenter’s lesser films. It’s certainly not nearly as celebrated as some of his other films. For me, however, it’s one of the best things he’s ever done.