"Carpenter is a master at creating effects with on a shoestring budget and the silence is wait makes the tension unbearable"
Re-released on DVD and Blu-Ray on 21st November is John Carpenter’s 1976 cult classic Assault on Precinct 13. While it is not overtly a horror film in the style of many of the director’s other classics, the key elements that made him such an important and respected filmmaker are all evident and now presented via this stunning restoration.
Opening with Carpenter’s own synth-style score and the killing of LA gang members by police, we immediately find ourselves in a film that manages to have a relatively simple plot yet remains engrossing throughout its refreshingly slender running time.
On the night that Precinct 9 is due to close for re-location (the title is actually an error, although the Precinct is in district 13), Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) has to deal at first with a group of prisoners un-expectantly stopping off mid-transfer and then devastated father Lawson (Martin West) being pursued by the aforementioned LA gang members but in shock and unable to communicate the cause of his anguish.
The components of the set up are what draws you in as Carpenter keeps you guessing as to how the characters are all going to come together in the films second act. He manages to create tension from seemingly trivial moments, with his trademark use of long takes and the score giving the apparent sense of dread. This results in the key assassination at the ice cream van that ironically manages to be moving by being so cold and chilling.
As the characters descend towards the precinct and the siege begins, we’re kept very firmly in the position of the precincts inhabitants. The gang which encircle it are barely seen and hardly heard but their presence is heavily felt as they kill without prejudice – they’re Michael Myers, they’re mysterious sailors in a fog, they’re a thing from another world, they’re a gang of archetypal John Carpenter villains.
The action itself is sparing yet keenly felt as smashed windows and occasional bullet holes are largely the only effects of the siege alongside the mounting pile of bodies, some of which mysteriously disappear. Carpenter is a master at creating effects with on a shoestring budget and the silence is wait makes the tension unbearable. Less, most certainly, is more.
As the film reaches its climax, Carpenter ratchets up the tension as the precinct is breached but keeps the focus squarely on Bishop and prisoner Napoleon (Darwin Joston) in their attempts to protect Lawson. It’s a technique that many modern day action directors could well do to learn from and culminates in an upbeat ending (at least in the context of other Carpenter films) that really resonates.
This all leaves Assault on Precinct 13 as a film that rises above its low budget restraints and remains a one that is watched, discussed and loved 40 years later. In essence, it’s John Carpenter doing what John Carpenter does best.