“Assault on Precinct 13″ (1976)
Studio: CKK Corporation
Starring: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer, Tony Burton, Charles Cyphers
Directed by: John Carpenter
Running Time: 91 min.
Synopsis: A small group of people battle an L.A. gang that have surrounded them in a closed down police station.
I first saw Assault on Precinct 13 in the mid or late 90’s. Being a big fan of John Carpenter back then, I wanted to see all of his films. When I picked up Assault on VHS back then, I didn’t really know that much about it and just knew it was the film he did before Halloween. When I saw it I was very impressed with the film overall. It had a great story that had powerful characters in it that you liked and wanted to see make it out of the crisis that they were in. Also the film’s score, camera work, and editing helped make this film a classic from the 1970’s.
A gang in L.A. steals a number of weapons that is enough to start a whole army. The gang makes a pact in blood to start a siege against the city. Meanwhile, in three different parts of the city, a police officer, Ethan Bishop is on his way to babysit a closing police station on its last night opened, a father and daughter, Kathy, are driving around a bad neighborhood looking for Kathy’s nanny’s place, and a bus load of convicts are being transferred, one is Napoleon Wilson, who is on death row.
Soon after Bishop arrives at the precinct, the bus load of prisoners make a surprise stop at the station, because one of the inmates is sick. About the same time the father and daughter are close to finding the nanny’s place, when Kathy is shot and killed by members of the gang who are cruising looking for targets. The father chases after them, but he finds out he is outnumbered and the gang pursues him. The father happens to seek help at the soon to be closed police station. With only Bishop and a few other officers there, they try to help the man out, but soon after that they realize the danger that he has been running from. As an officer investigates outside and the prisoners attempted to get back on the bus, they are met with gunfire and most of them are shot down. Only Bishop, Wilson, another prisoner, Wells, the father, and two women that work at the station, Leigh and Julie are left inside the station to the mercy of the gang members outside surrounding the precinct.
There’s a lot to like about this movie and the thing that sticks out the most in my mind is the cast. When you have a film that is set in one location for the majority of the movie, you better have a great cast of characters that are likeable or can pull off the character they are playing. The three standouts of the cast are Austin Stoker (Battle for the Planet of the Apes) as Bishop, Darwin Joston (Eraserhead) as Wilson, and Laurie Zimmer as Leigh. All these three are the strongest characters, not only in acting chops, but how their characters handle themselves throughout the chaos and give the gang a good fight.
The chemistry is great between these three characters. Bishop and Wilson work well together and are an unlikely pair to be close friends at the end, being that Bishop’s a cop and Wilson’s a con on death row. Another unlikely duo is Wilson and Leigh, who have an instant attraction to each other the moment they lay eyes on each other. I can see Wilson of course being head over heels instantly, because who knows when’s the last time he’s seen a woman, but for Leigh to have a quick interest in this jailbird may be a little farfetched. Then again, Leigh does work in a police station and maybe she has a thing for tough guys. She is a tough one herself who is one badass and strong female character in this film. In one scene, Leigh takes a bullet in the arm and doesn’t even flinch or scream. Then she takes out the hood that shot her by raking him in the eyes with a set of keys. She also holds her own with the boys during the shoot out scenes and kicks some ass.
Some of the supporting cast is not too bad, with Tony Burton (the Rocky films) who plays the whiny but funny at times prisoner Wells and Halloween alumni’s Nancy Loomis as Julie and Charles Cyphers as Starker. Cyphers gives a good performance for his short time on the screen, who plays an officer escorting Wilson and the other prisoners. He is gunned down just as the gang ambushes the station. Loomis plays the annoying telephone operator at the station that you want to see shot.
The film also has a Night of the Living Dead vibe to it in many ways. One is the black lead, Bishop, who is the hero and the leader of the group. Another is people being trapped in one location as numerous cold-blooded silent killers surround the place on the outside. Then there’s the character of the father who is almost in the role of Barbara and is catatonic from the minute he steps foot in the police station until the end of the film. Also, just like how Night ends with the hero going to the basement, the last remaining go down to the station’s basement to fend off the gang members.
Assault has many great technical aspects to it in directing, photography, editing, and score. The soundtrack is one of Carpenter’s best next to Halloween and Escape from New York. The music fits the film like a glove and is very effective in many different scenes. Without this score the movie wouldn’t be as good as it is. The film is well paced, especially during the first half where all the stories start off separately, but then blend together. The directing and camera work are excellent all through the film.
There are two scenes that always stand out to me that have good use of camera movement and direction. One is in the police station, where an officer exits camera by walking in another room. Soon as he closes the door, another one opens down the hall with Leigh coming out. Camera dollies in as she walks down the hallway. The other is a scene when the father is driving with his daughter, Kathy, making a turn down the street on a close-up. It then cuts to a wide shot where we see the car going down the road. Camera pans over and we see one of the gang members in the foreground looking over to the car. He then walks over to three other members who load some of their weapons in a car and then drive off. The scene gives me chills because we see how close this family is to the evil that awaits them.
The story is very good and the writing for the screen is great. There are tons of classic one-liners and this is really before movies had intentional one-liners they would write in scripts that would be good for trailer spots. That didn’t really happen until the 1980’s. One of my favorites is when Wilson says, “I was born out of time.” A few that made me laugh are from Wells, when he yells out “The windows!”, referring to the gang members breaking in and the other one is simply “Shit!” You’ll have to see the film to get the full effect of these lines.
SPOILER ALERT: One of the most shocking scenes in the film happens early on and it is when Kathy, played by Kim Richards, (Devil Dog: Hound from Hell) is killed. It has always been taboo to kill off a child character on screen. This scene disturbed me the first time I saw it and still does to this day. What happens is, Kathy gets an ice cream from an ice cream man, while waiting for her father to get off the phone with her nanny. As she walks away, she notices it’s not the ice cream she ordered. Meanwhile, the ice cream man is now being harassed by some of the gang members. Kathy walks over and doesn’t see them and asks for the right ice cream. A stone cold gang member then shoots her in the chest. The film was going to be given an X rating if the scene wasn’t cut. What happened was Carpenter showed them a version of the film with the scene cut out. He got his R rating, then put the scene back in and distributed it in its original form.
Some other facts about the film are that the assault actually takes place at Precinct 9, Division 13. The title of the film was never going to be Assault on Precinct 13, which was the title that the distributors came up with. Carpenter originally wanted to call it The Anderson Alamo or The Siege. Whatever the film is called, it’s a classic from Carpenter and an underrated film. A great film to see if you haven’t all ready and an excellent movie to have in your collection.