Dark Star may have been Carpenter’s debut feature film as a director but it was equally Dan O’Bannon’s film. Assault on Precinct 13 however is the film which made people at least in Europe take notice of John Carpenter who remains the arguably the key genre filmmaker of the late ’70s and ’80s. Carpenter merged his love of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo with the low-budget horrors of Night of the Living Dead to make a one of the most pulsating thrillers of the ’70s.
Assault on Precinct 13 is as minimalist as the work of Robert Bresson in terms of plot. It’s about an intercity L.A. police station which is closing down and becomes under siege by gang members. The police officers headed by Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) must work together with the criminals headed by Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) to stop the gang getting in. The plot is exactly the same as many Hawks’ films such as Rio Bravo but transported to a contemporary setting instead of the old west.
The film moves like a motherfucker at a totally unrelenting pace of 91 minutes and never takes a breather, it’s exactly how the best genre films should be. It’s full of great set pieces most notably one involving a young girl with an ice cream cone. Carpenter is always great at getting good performances out of his cast and this is no exception. The biggest name was probably the classic Hollywood character actor Henry Brandon who was Scar in The Searchers which is one of Carpenter’s favourite films. Stoker had been in a couple blaxploitation films along with Battle for the Planet of the Apes and some TV work but not much else.
Carpenter has been on record saying its apolitical film but as with almost all of his work his politics creep in. The fact two of the main characters are African-American and a woman are far ahead of their time and makes the film seem just as contemporary as it did when it came out in 1976. The character of Napoleon is a kind of proto-Snake Plissken with his sort of Anarchist anti-hero persona which reflects Carpenter’s own views on forms of authority.
Given the fact they worked on a tiny budget Carpenter was able to pull a film which remains daring and influential to this day on numerous filmmakers. It also set the template for many more action films to come. It’s brilliantly shot as well and was Carpenter’s first use of trademark 2.35:1 anamorphic Panavision widescreen which is wider than normal widescreen. It’s Carpenter’s first true masterpiece and his run from Dark Star to his finest hour and a half They Live is better than most filmmakers entire career. Carpenter also did the synth score which is his first riffy score and theme was a minor disco hit.
Second Sight has compiled an impressive new package for the film. The disc includes a commentary from Carpenter who is always a total blast to listen to. The second commentary is from Tommy Lee Wallace who is also newly interviewed in a separate feature. Newly filmed interviews with Austin Stoker and executive producer Joseph Kaufman are solid. Carpenter’s student film Captain Voyeur is included which is interesting historically but not so much film wise.
The longest non-commentary feature is the documentary Do You Remember Laurie Zimmer? which is frankly a total bore, it’s about the lead actress and an old friend’s quest to find her. The final big feature are vintage interviews which include a Q&A with Carpenter and Sorkin and an interview with actress Nancy Loomis. Trailer and radio spots are also included. The package also includes a cd of Carpenter’s score and finally some art cards.