ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 ***** USA 1976 Dir: John Carpenter. 91 mins
Carpenter’s second feature film is a masterclass in stripped-down, unrelenting tension. Its stylistic confidence, pace and striking widescreen look all belied its low budget, earned a rapturous reception at the London Film Festival (and elsewhere) and led the young filmmaker to two career-securing movies made back to back – one for television (SOMEONE’S WATCHING ME!) and one for cinema (HALLOWEEN).
Opening with red-on-black titles set to Carpenter’s own, haunting synth / drum machine main theme, it’s a gritty reworking of RIO BRAVO set in the here and now, as confirmed by a location and time / date stamp at the start while the Panavision camera glides around sun kissed yet ominous Los Angeles suburbs. The story is established without any extraneous exposition: a police ambush leads the members of a street gang to hold a nearly abandoned police precinct – due for imminent closure – under siege for one long, violent night. Carpenter pays homage to Howard Hawks, one of his filmmaking heroes, with a snarky loveable rogue (Darwin Joston) and a very Hawksian heroine (Laurie Zimmer) while grounding the action with Austin Stoker’s terrific, charismatic leading man. The director would work with many of the excellent cast (including Joston, Charles Cyphers and Nancy Loomis) in later movies, and the movie sets a sleek, claustrophobic style that would become his trademark. In a decade where American cinema relished the chance to depict authentic crime sprees in the cities and suburbs, Carpenter transformed a street gang into a faceless, silent, omnipresent horde hiding in pools of darkness, not unlike the Romero zombies who revolutionised the modern American horror film almost a decade earlier. It’s taut, witty and terrifying, and also features one of the grimmest, most shocking scenes in 1970’s American cinema: little Kim Richards (also in THE CAR and DEVIL DOG: HOUND OF HELL around the same time) is bloodily gunned down while preparing to enjoy a treat from an Ice Cream van. It was proficiently remade thirty years later with Ethan Hawke and Lawrence Fishburne but, despite that film’s own qualities, it couldn’t hold a candle to this startling sequence or, indeed, the enduring impact of this evergreen thriller.
Review by Steven West