ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976, The C K K Corporation, USA, 90 mins, Colour, 2.35:1, Mono/DTS 5.1, Cert: 15, Action Thriller) ∗∗∗∗
Starring: Austin Stoker (Lt. Ethan Bishop), Darwin Joston (Napoleon Wilson), Laurie Zimmer (Leigh), Martin West (Lawson), Tony Burton (Wells), Charles Cyphers (Starker), Nancy Loomis (Julie), Peter Bruni (Ice cream man), John J. Fox (Warden), Marc Ross (Patrolman Tramer), Alan Koss (Patrolman Baxter), Henry Brandon (Chaney), Kim Richards (Kathy).
Producer: J. S. Kaplan; Director: John Carpenter; Writer: John Carpenter; Director of Photography: Douglas Knapp (Metrocolor); Music: John Carpenter; Film Editor: John Carpenter (as John T. Chance); Art Director: Tommy Wallace.
This film provided light to the touch paper on the career of its writer and director, John Carpenter (who also handled the music score and editing duties). Carpenter had enjoyed some cult success with his comic sci-fi debut DARK STAR in 1974, but it was this film and its follow-up HALLOWEEN (1978) that cemented the deal.
Much has been said of the movie’s two major influences. The law under siege coming from Howard Hawks’ RIO BRAVO (1959) and the dialogue-free portrayal of the LA gangs as single-minded and almost zombie-like a nod toward NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). Carpenter’s use of a pseudonym for his editor credit and Zimmer’s character name acknowledged the former.
The result is an economical and highly entertaining B-movie, which moves at a fair clip. Whilst the cast lacks a certain star wattage, Carpenter gives the actors some memorable dialogue – most notably to Joston, whose running gag “Got a smoke” is another nod to Hawks and westerns in general. Carpenter adds to the tension with his electronic score, which through its simplicity of structure and phrasing heightens the atmosphere. The ice cream van scene is still talked about today for its shock value and is a prime example of how the director could keep an audience on its toes in the early films of his career. The first gun assault on the closed-down precinct house was all the more effective for the gang’s use of silencers to avoid their assault being reported from the nearby neighbourhood. The pinging ricochet of bullets and the flutter of papers convey the sense of danger in a different and more effective way.
Initially dismissed in the US, the film gained its reputation in Europe the year following its release. This led to a re-appraisal by American critics and a re-release when Carpenter’s reputation was sealed with HALLOWEEN. The film itself became the subject of a less effective remake in 2005 and Carpenter would re-work the siege theme in his remake of THE THING (1980) and the later GHOSTS OF MARS (2001).