The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976) | The Movie Waffler

Blu-Ray Review - ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)

On the night it's set to close down, a Los Angeles police station comes under siege by gang members.

Review by Jason Abbey

Directed by: John Carpenter

Starring: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer, Martin West, Tony Burton

John Carpenter's brutal, snappy shark of a movie is B-movie efficiency at its best. With nary an ounce of fat or a scene wasted, this is 90 minutes of razor sharp editing and tension building. If it was a model it would be a size zero.

Inspired by the Howard Hawks westerns of his youth and the political undertones of the best of Indie horror of the period, Carpenter updates the period siege plot and brings it bang up to date (at the time), adding a patina of moral ambivalence and the fear of escalating gang violence into the inner cities. If Dark Star was a more freewheeling counter culture ramble in sci-fi dress, this shows the style and narrative movement of his best work in the embryonic stage. Funky bit shrill electronic score? You got it! Gliding Panavision? Check! Laconic comedy beats to relieve the tension? Well, you get the idea.

There is no complication here, just good old fashioned storytelling, a new cop dealing with the transition of a new precinct from the soon to be defunct 13, and a cache of high grade weaponry in the hands of a gang itching for revenge and a dad out for vengeance. This confluence of events is all that is needed to make one of the classics of the genre.

For a film pushing 40 it is remarkably modern, and in a way the mundane remake isn’t, making a black cop and a death row criminal the central heroes of the piece, and giving the female lead more to do than scream and be saved (Laurie Zimmer may not be the best actor ever, but as a feisty Lauren Bacall type she more than holds her own when things kick off). Carpenter also cleverly updates the racist faceless other of Native Americans in '50s westerns and uses it to his advantage. Making the street gang a group of sociopaths with no character traits or personality makes them all the scarier. They kill at will, offer no dialogue and act like a hive mind. They act more like zombies than a gang of toughs, and in the implacable killing logic of the group, feel like a dry run for Michael Myers. Darwin Joston, as death Row inmate Napoleon Wilson, also feels like the template which spawned Snake Plissken, although without the proficiency with sneering one liners that Kurt Russell can do in his sleep.

It has few faults. Having a black cop and a white death row criminal seems like an interesting inversion of the usual tropes of this sort of film, but racial politics barely make any inroads during the terse running time (Stoker, who plays Lt Ethan Bishop, was Carpenter's next door neighbour at the time). The climax also suffers a little due to budgetary restrictions; what should be a tense high explosive dénouement turns into attack of the jazz hands.

These are small gripes for a film that has one of the best musical hooks in cinema, and acting way beyond the expectations of the money involved. And if you have a fond dislike of kids with ice cream, you will be in heaven. It may not be deep or meaningful, but it does what b-movie cinema should do, strap you into a propulsive rollercoaster that moves you to the other end with a big smile on your face and the need to get straight back into it.

We may need a bigger word than 'extras' to cover this. Two Audio commentaries, from both Carpenter and crew member now director Tommy Lee Wallace. Trailers and radio spots. An early short film from Carpenter, Captain Voyeur. Interviews with Austin Stoker, Tommy Lee Wallace, John Carpenter. Add a French documentary come mystery thriller, Do You Remember Laurie Zimmer?, as well as a significant upgrade in quality, both audio and visual, and you have a package that is nigh on faultless in depth and enjoyment.

Assault on Precinct 13 is available on blu-ray now from Second Sight.