Some have called it an homage to Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, while others have cited the obvious influences of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Whatever its initial inspirations might have been, however, one thing is certain: John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 now stands on it’s own merits; a masterwork of action and a film with the power to shock and entertain that remains just as strong today as it was 30+ years ago.
Los Angeles’ Precinct 9, Division 13 is being phased out of existence, and a small crew of police and secretaries, under the command of new Chief Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker), have been left behind to hold down the fort. But Division 13 isn’t destined to go quietly into the night. To start with, the nearly abandoned Precinct finds itself serving as the unwitting host to ruthless murderer Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), whose trip to Death Row has been temporarily diverted. Then, shortly after Wilson’s arrival, a man stumbles through the doors of the Precinct looking for refuge. The man is Lawson (Martin Wells), whose daughter Kathy (Kim Richards) has just been killed in a gang shooting. In a fit of rage, Lawson himself kills one of the gang members (Frank Doubleday), and as a result is chased into the poorly-defended Precinct. Having also vowed revenge against the police following an earlier shooting, the heavily armed gang, which goes by the name of Street Thunder, assembles just outside Division 13, hoping to settle all their debts in one fell swoop. Now, with no electricity, no phones, and very few weapons to defend themselves with, Ethan Bishop must join forces with some of the most hardened criminals ever to occupy Division 13’s cells if he’s to have any hope at all of surviving the night.
The performances in Assault from Precinct 13 range from good to merely competent (like Dark Star, Carpenter filled key roles with friends and amateurs), but no matter: the real star of Assault on Precinct 13 is Carpenter himself, whose range of talents are given the full workout. Functioning as writer, director, editor (a task he performed under the pseudonym John T. Chance) and even composer, Carpenter flexed every one of his creative muscles, all to a wonderful effect. The dialogue, especially that of killer Napoleon Wilson, is sharp and to the point, with Carpenter showing an early penchant for giving the bad-asses all the great lines (when asked why he killed, Wilson answers, “The first time I ever saw a preacher, he said ‘Son, there’s something strange about you. You got something to do with death’. Being real young, I believed him.”). When not impressing us with his dialogue, Carpenter allowed his techno score to do the talking, always setting the perfect tone for each scene (light and observant when Ethan Bishop first walks into Precinct 13; sharp and powerful when the gang members set out to exact some revenge).
Then, of course, there’s the action, and before we’re introduced to a single character, or have any idea what the film is going to be about, we’re witness to a shoot-out, one that provided Carpenter the opportunity to employ a variety of camera motions. He opens things up with a hand-held shot, putting us at ground level, mingling with some gang members as they silently make their way down a deserted alley. The silence is quickly broken by a police bullhorn, followed shortly by gunfire, with police on top, rifles angled downward, opening fire on the gang members below. It’s an obvious tribute to the classic western ambush scene, and we actually start things off feeling some sympathy for the gang members, who look here to be more victim than criminal. Of course, Carpenter ensures that any sympathy is short-lived thanks to the disturbingly brutal murder of Kathy (staged in the same straight-forward manner he relies on for his dialogue), whose only crime was she wanted to buy some ice cream. But the stage has been set nonetheless, and any doubts one may have had about Assault on Precinct 13 being an exciting film are immediately dismissed as a result of this opening sequence.
Assault on Precinct 13 was made on a nearly invisible budget (it was produced by J. Stein Kaplan and Joseph Kaufman, two friends of Carpenter’s who financed the film with money borrowed from their fathers), yet Carpenter took full advantage of everything at his disposal, going to great lengths to ensure his film would look as professional as it possibly could. I once again turn to Gilles Boulenger’s book, “John Carpenter, Prince of Darkness”, and offer the following recollection of Tommy Lee Wallace, a schoolboy friend and sometimes collaborator of John Carpenter’s, who recalls the following anecdote from his days as Art Director on Assault on Precinct 13:
“The budget was miniscule. Had the money been apportioned logically, we would have shot on 16mm, mostly handheld, it would have been processed on a wing and a prayer at some fly-by-night lab, and postproduction would have been in somebody’s bedroom.
Such was not the case. John insisted we go with Panavision equipment, and in fact, that we shoot anamorphic widescreen. He further insisted we get the best processing money could buy, which at that time was the legendary MGM color labs. Finally, he insisted we get the best postproduction sound money could buy, which was Samuel Goldwin sound, another legend. The expense for this unorthodox approach ate up a huge amount of the budget. The production manager fumed we were exploiting people to pay for processing – and it was true.
But the first night I saw dailies, projected on a bed sheet in the producer’s ratty apartment, I knew John had been right. The bed sheet wasn’t even wide enough to contain this rich, gorgeous image that seemed to stretch out forever on both sides. I was sprawled on the floor under the projector. My jaw dropped and I sat up so straight I cast a shadow with my head. This looked like a zillion dollars. This looked like a real movie.
As I stared at the screen, I got a feeling deep in the pit of my stomach. The game abruptly changed. Assault on Precinct 13 didn’t look remotely like its tiny budget. We were going to fool everyone! It was the most enduring lesson about filmmaking that John ever taught me: The movie will be here long after we’re gone. Do whatever it takes to make it look and sound its best. Whatever it takes”.
From where I’m sitting, all I can say is: mission accomplished.