by Steve Habrat
You know a film means business when an innocent little girl is brutally gunned down while trying to get an ice cream cone in the film’s opening moments. Hell, if a little girl can get killed that early on, then that means anyone can get bumped off next! Welcome to the world of 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13, the second feature length film from John “Halloween” Carpenter. Regarded as the film that launched Carpenter’s career and viewed by many critics as one of the best exploitation films of the 1970s, Assault on Precinct 13 is one mean, unflinching picture of violence that would have been right at home in a dingy theater on 42nd Street. Partly inspired by the Howard Hawks 1959 western Rio Bravo and George Romero’s 1968 debut Night of the Living Dead, Assault of Precinct 13 is perhaps one of the most unusual crime thrillers you are ever likely to see. A complete product of its time, Assault on Precinct 13 is an appropriately gritty and bleak vision of urban decay that the police are virtually powerless to contain. The film also appears to be extremely aware of how lucrative the horror film was during the 1970s, as Assault on Precinct 13 is infested with surprisingly thrills, chills, and gore that is a little too unsettling.
Assault on Precinct 13 begins with a handful of members of the ‘Street Thunder’ gang getting ambushed and gunned down by several LAPD officers. The next morning, a group of gang warlords all swear a blood oath of revenge against the police of Los Angeles. Meanwhile, newly promoted CHP officer Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Played by Austin Stoker) is assigned to take command of the old isolated Anderson precinct building, which is closing its doors for good in the morning. Later that evening, a prison bus that is carrying three dangerous inmates stops by after one prisoner becomes ill on their trip to Death Row. It turns out that the bus is transporting the well-known convicted murderer Napoleon Wilson (Played by Darwin Joston), who is extremely dangerous and unpredictable. As the night goes on, a terrified citizen comes bursting into the station mumbling about the death of his daughter. Bishop discovers that several heavily armed gang members have followed the man to the station. These gang members open fire on the station with powerful silenced automatic weapons, killing many of the people inside the station. Unable to get help due to the disconnected phones, Bishop is forced to join forces with Wilson, secretary Leigh (Played by Laurie Zimmer), and another prisoner named Wells (Played by Tony Burton) until help arrives to contain the relentless waves of gang attacks.
Assault on Precinct 13 longs to be a western and it doesn’t make any attempts to conceal that fact. The film pairs an outlaw and a lawman together, forcing them to set aside their differences to make one more heroic last stand. The film is basically Rio Bravo given an urban facelift and loaded with a hell of a lot more gore (and less Dean Martin). Yet Carpenter isn’t content with just producing a modern day western. He borrows aspects from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and molds the film into a hair-raising siege film where countless silent antagonists try to force their way into the station to brutally murder the terrified individuals inside. Even Carpenter’s protagonist, the African American Bishop, is eerily similar to the gently reassuring Ben from Night of the Living Dead. The film has been called one of the ultimate exploitation films from the 1970s, one that is absolutely unforgiving and extreme. A little girl is horrifically gunned down after being in the wrong place and the wrong time. Several police officers meet a messy end, seemingly powerless to stop this senseless onslaught. There are very few rays of hope in this unpredictable beast, especially as the small group’s numbers rapidly dwindle at the hands of the cold, emotionless killers.
The real shock of Assault on Precinct 13 is how natural the acting is, free flowing as Carpenter’s camera follows the actors along. Stoker is the star of the show here, playing the unassuming good guy who just wants everyone to make it out alive even as he is sometimes powerless to make sure this happens. What is also surprising about his character is how quickly he trusts Wilson, which adds to his appeal. Wilson, on the other hand, seems grossly misunderstood and you get the sneaking suspicion that he isn’t as viscous as he has been made out. Even still, in the scenes that he gunning down countless charging gang members, he wears a beaming grin on his face as bodies go tumbling through the air. Yet for all the joy he seems to find it taking lives, he never once seems threatening to the innocent people around him. Burton’s Wells is a guy who has had a long, hard life that was riddled with bad luck that doesn’t appear to be changing. Zimmer’s Leigh is one tough chick whose skills with a gun would make One-Eye from Thriller-A Cruel Picture smile. There is also a faint spark of attraction between her and Wilson, which, much like the events around them, is hopeless to pursue.
Assault on Precinct 13 does hit a few bumps in the dialogue department but everything else is so good that you will be willing to overlook them. Much like some of Carpenter’s best work, Assault on Precinct 13 is such a great film because it is heavy on atmosphere, especially the beady-eyed capriciousness that one cannot easily shake. It also allows us to get to know our characters, especially the ones we immediately presume to be bad which gives the film a bit of depth that is highly unusual for an exploitation film. Most characters in these films aren’t given much personality, making us indifferent when they ultimately bite the dust. Ultimately, Assault on Precinct 13 ranks up there as one of Carpenter’s finest and most satisfying films in his body of work. This is an explosive, tense, grainy, and very mean urban thriller that is all the better because it lacks escapist polish. This is one that exploitation fans will want to revisit again and again.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) is available on Blu-ray and DVD.