Small in scale and low of budget, John Carpenter’s thriller Assault on Precinct 13 nonetheless remains a powerfully effective and influential piece of work. This 40th anniversary edition is presented in a lovingly restored HD picture which looks pin sharp.
At just under 90 minutes it’s a tense, beautifully paced piece of work with some lovely performances and a weirdly satisfying plot despite the fact that virtually nothing is ever fully explained. This is literally a siege film that could almost play as a cowboy movie, using as it does the old Wild West staple of a building holed up with the goodies and indiscriminate bad guys outside who want to get in.
In terms of story, Assault on Precinct 13 is really that straightforward. Not a lot else happens.
Ethan Bishop, a new Lieutenant on his first day in the job, played superbly by Austin Stoker, has been given the run of a Los Angeles precinct building which is being taken out of service the following day. Power is due to be cut, phones shut down and all enquiries to be pointed in the direction of the new precinct building a few blocks away. Some staff remain, packing stuff up, and at the last minute they are unexpectedly joined by a very small number of death row inmates being transferred from a local prison.
The abandoned police precinct populated by a skeleton staff of mismatched workers and criminals under attack makes the film echo across popular culture in ways that may not be expected. This is, after all, a film about a gun attack by criminals on a sparsely protected building – but in many ways the format is more familiar now to the zombie genre. The faceless anonymous criminals making the attack are very reminiscent of the undead – and there are direct similarities between the end of Assault on Precinct 13 and Shaun of the Dead for example. Edgar Wright is reportedly a big fan of the movie – and its tense pacey and violent styling is clearly an influence on a huge number of filmmakers. Assault on Precinct 13 is one of the most successful independent movies made in the 1970s but mainly stands out because it is very good.
Carpenter’s ability to control the ebb and flow of dialogue and action is what makes the movie really work. The characterisation is great. There is tension, humour, fear, frustration. And it may seem a curious thing to mention but having a black lead may not seem extraordinary now, but in terms of 1976 having a character in charge of stuff as part of his everyday work and who just happened to be black, and whose colour is never even mentioned is way ahead of the exploitation flicks of the time. Austin Stoker is a great centre point to the movie.
When it’s boiled down, Assault on Precinct 13 is a very, very simple film, just one which is very well done.
The 40th anniversary Blu Ray included new and archive interviews, audio commentaries from John Carpenter and Tommy Lee Wallace, and a short student film by John Carpenter called Captain Voyeur. It is released on Monday 28th November, and will also be available on DVD. If you’ve never seen it before, prepare yourself for a treat.