Starring Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer, Tony Burton
Directed by John Carpenter
Distributed by Second Sight
There’s not much you can say about Assault on Precinct 13 that hasn’t already been said. John Carpenter proved with only his second feature he’s a master of suspense, turning a stripped down siege concept into a claustrophobic masterpiece.
Assault is ultimately an urban western, where a lawman teams up with a criminal to survive a vicious attack on an understaffed police station. The Howard Hawks influence is strong, with the two men coming together because they share the same code of honour, and a tough-talking lady fights alongside them. Carpenter also uses widescreen photography to make his tiny budget thriller look truly cinematic, filming Los Angeles like it was an expansive desert landscape.
Assault is still infamous for the “Ice Cream” scene, where a young girl is shot dead by a gang member. Carpenter has since stated he probably wouldn’t include such a moment if he was making the film now, and even forty years on it’s still shocking. The brute impact kicks the second act into high gear, though, and it’s hard to imagine the film working so well without it.
The film’s dialogue is highly stylised, and wouldn’t sound out-of-place in a b-western from the 1950’s. This is hardly a mistake on the director’s part since it’s his nod to Rio Bravo, one of his personal favourites. Assault on Precinct 13 also has a sandpaper-dry sense of humour, managing to wring dark laughs out of the intense situation. The siege theme is something Carpenter would return to time and again, climaxing in a sense with Ghosts of Mars, which could almost be described as his version of Rio Lobo.
Austin Stoker and Darwin Joston are well cast as Bishop and Napoleon Wilson, with both managing to make the dialogue sound natural while playing well off one another. Laurie Zimmer is the film’s hidden weapon, providing a perfect mix of sultry and toughness. It’s a real shame none of these performers went on to other roles worthy of their talents.
Despite having the trappings of a thriller Assault plays like a horror movie, with wave after wave of faceless, mindless gang members attacking the precinct. It’s a zombie movie in all but name and faceless evil is another theme Carpenter would explore again with The Fog, Prince of Darkness and – of course – Halloween.
Assault on Precinct 13 is pulpy b-movie excellence, crafted by a hungry filmmaker at the top of his game. Occasionally the low-budget hurts it or a line of dialogue creaks, but Assault has aged remarkably little in the last four decades, and long may its reputation grow.
Assault on Precinct 13 fans will be well served with Second Sight’s 40th-anniversary edition, which comes loaded with new bonus features. It has fresh interviews with Stoker, Tommy Lee Wallace, Nancy Loomis and producer Joseph Kaufman, who all give great insight into the production from differing viewpoints. There’s also a new audio commentary with Wallace, who discusses the challenges of making the film and his long-time working relationship with Carpenter.
Plus there’s an archive interview with Carpenter and Stoker, a trailer and radio spots. Those who fork out for the Blu-ray get exclusive features like Do You Remember Laurie Zimmer? a 2003 documentary about a filmmaker trying to track down the actress decades after she quit the film business. Finally, Carpenter fans should be eager to see Captain Voyeur, one of his long lost student shorts from 1969.
There’s enough new material here for Assault on Precinct 13 fans to justify a double – or triple-dip – and any newbies who haven’t seen it yet, this is a good place to start.
• Audio Commentary by John Carpenter
• Audio Commentary by Tommy Lee Wallace
• Return to Precinct 13: A new interview with Austin Stoker
• Producing Precinct 13: A new interview with Joseph Kaufman
• Filmmaking with John: A new interview with Tommy Lee Wallace
• The Sassy One with Nancy Loomis
• Interview with John Carpenter and Austin Stoker
• Radio Spots
• Captain Voyeur: Student short film by John Carpenter (Blu-ray only)
• Do You Remember Laurie Zimmer? documentary (Blu-ray only)