Films and Filming:
February 1978

Assault on Precinct 13

By Gordon Gow

A promising new director who acknowledges an inclination towards the suspense movie is John Carpenter, a youngish Kentuckian, who broached science fiction in his initial feature, DARK STAR (1974), and has followed it with this inventive variation on the police thriller. ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 tells the discreetly tall story of a police station in a Los Angeles ghetto, which is on the point of being shut down and relocated when, throughout a suddenly fraught night, it finds itself under siege by a gang of rather mindless and heavily menacing youths.

Quite early in the piece an aura of dread is succinctly established by a blood oath, taken by the four principal members of the gang, their flickblades piercing the skin of their arms, blood forming in bright red droplets and accumulating very unappetizingly in a Pyrex bowl. From there on the gang is subtly depicted as something more than the sum of its individual parts, and when later, in a panning shot across the terrain opposite the police station, we discern between the trees a proliferation of the aggressive force, more and more youths materializing to augment the threat, a hint of evil power, outpacing the violent norm, gives to the proceedings an extra and unusually delicate turn of the screw. This is Carpenter’s major feat.

His preparatory section is on the slow side, although one must admire its details. What seems like a subplot, but is to integrate nicely in the fullness of time, is the transportation of three prisoners to Sonora and Death Row, a progress that is halted when one of the men falls ill and the other two are held in Precinct 13 where one of them, Wilson, known as Napoleon (Darwin Joston, giving the film’s standout performance), proves eventually to be of invaluable aid to the forces of law and order when he pits his talent for survival against the lethal endeavors of the gang.

While the trappings of the precinct have mostly been stowed into packing cases, and the staff is ready for departure, the officer in charge on this fatal night is a temporary assignment, Lieutenant Bishop (Austin Stoker), and he is very nicely delineated. We learn that he grew up in the ghetto. He remembers the police station from a traumatic visit in his childhood, when his father sent him there with a note asking that he should be locked up in punishment for a misdemeanor: perhaps Carpenter means this as a passing homage to Alfred Hitchcock, who is fond of recounting how the same thing actually happened to him at a tender age. Bishop had gathered enough willpower by the age of twenty to depart from the ghetto, and hasn’t set foot in it for ten years or more, so that the night ahead takes on increased irony by providing another trauma for him.

There is also a deranged man who has killed one of the gang, who ruthlessly shot down his little daughter in an episode of compact horror, and this addition to the precinct’s overnight complement lends fuel to the approaching gang’s vengeance kick. The siege is thoroughly suspenseful in itself. Once it begins the early slackening is no longer in evidence, and all that breaks the pervading tension, and then only slightly, is Carpenter’s seemingly insecure tendency to offset the extreme melodrama with comic relief that is funny only sometimes.

The suspense is what counts, though, and Carpenter orders it well, particularly in the gang’s eerie fusillade from guns equipped with silencers, so that the only noise heard is the shattering of the precinct windows as the bullets hit them and the flurry of papers disturbed on the desks, for all the world as if the attackers were ghosts: an impression reinforced when dead bodies are removed, as if by invisible hands, from the battleground outside, and the place looks clean and deserted to the passerby, although we know it to be merely granted a pause before the next onslaught.

The music, most effective when plonking and clacking percussively, has been composed by Carpenter himself, who also did his own editing under the pseudonym of John T Chance (the name of the character played by John Wayne in RIO BRAVO). Carpenter has described ASSAULT ON PRECINT 13 as a kind of urban version of the Western, and certainly it has more action than is commonly found in spaces neither wide nor open. It also has enough filmic zip to make one eager to learn where its talented director will go from here.

back button
[Home] [The Man] [The Movies] [The Music] [Sounds] [Press] [Links]