Thursday, May 26, 2016

Cult Movie Theatre: John Carpenter Channels Howard Hawks in "Assault on Precinct 13"

When Los Angeles police officers execute six gang members for stealing guns, the local gangs join together and swear a blood oath to retaliate against the city. That afternoon, a gang member randomly shoots a young girl. Her father, overcome with grief and rage, pursues and kills his daughter's murderer. But then, the hunter becomes the hunted and the father seeks protection inside a police station with the gangs in pursuit.

Austin Stoker as Lt. Bishop.
What he doesn't know is that Precinct 9, Division 13 has been replaced by a new police headquarters. Only a skeleton crew, led by a new highway patrol lieutenant, remains inside the old building. Of course, there are also some unexpected prisoners--to include death row killer Napoleon Wilson--who arrived when a prison bus had to make an unplanned stop. It's shaping up to be a long night for Lieutenant Ethan Bishop, as he battles hundreds of gang members assaulting the police station, copes with the prisoners inside, and deals with power outages and severed phone lines that keep the precinct building isolated.

Following the success of his debut film, the sci fi satire Dark Star (1974), writer-director John Carpenter wanted to make an homage to Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo. His limited budget of $100,000 prevented Carpenter from making a Western, so he transplanted the action to modern-day L.A. and titled his script The Anderson Alamo. Running a crisp 91 minutes, Carpenter's film jettisons Hawks' well-defined characters, but still retains the central premise of an unlikely group of misfits fending off an attack on a jail against all odds.

After a slow build-up, the last half of the film is almost wall-to-wall action as the gang members make varied attempts to capture the police headquarters. In addition to Rio Bravo, Carpenter has a grand time paying homage to other genre classics such as Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Thing from Another World (1951). In regard to the latter, there's a long hallway that will look mighty familiar to sci-fi fans. As for Night of the Living Dead, Carpenter has acknowledged that Romero's ghouls inspired the gang members, who become nameless, nondescript creatures once the siege begins. In addition, Night fans will pick up on subtle references like the brief discussion on the merits of the basement as a safety haven.

Darwin Joston as Napoleon Wilson.
The use of little-known actors, which was a financial necessity, works to the film's advantage. While there were never any concerns about John Wayne's John T. Chance dying in Rio Bravo, the fate of Austin Stoker's Ethan Bishop remains in doubt until the film's closing scenes. The three leads--Stoker, Laurie Zimmer as a police employee, and Darwin Joston as the death row killer--acquit themselves nicely. Joston, a quirky screen presence, comes across as an early version of Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken from Carpenter's later Escape from New York (1981). One of the running gags in Assault on Precinct 13 has people asking Napoleon Wilson how he got his first name. (He replies that he'll tell them later...but never does.)

Kim Richards then and now.
Laurie Zimmer.
The only cast member to achieve any kind of stardom was Kim Richards, who played the young girl Kathy. She starred in Disney's Escape from Witch Mountain and its sequel. Decades later, she gained fame (of a sort) playing herself on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Of the three leads, Laurie Zimmer, who conveyed brains and beauty, seemed like the one most likely to succeed. However, she made only three more films and retired from acting. Twenty-seven years after Assault on Precinct 13, filmmaker Charlotte Szlovak tracked her down for the documentary Do You Remember Laurie Zimmer? It revealed that Zimmer was a teacher who was married and living in San Francisco.

Although the film takes place in Precinct 9, Division 13 headquarters, the film's backers thought the title Assault on Precinct 13 was more memorable (and rightly so). The movie only did so-so business in the U.S., but performed very well in Europe and led to Carpenter making Halloween (with a budget that tripled the one for Assault). Halloween (1978) went on to gross $70 million at the boxoffice (yes, that's 233 times its budget).

A respectable remake of Assault on Precinct 13 appeared in 2005 with Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishbourne, and Maria Bello. It retains the 1976's film's basic plot, but changes the characters.

Finally, John Carpenter's memorable, minimalist score for the original film--which was written in just three days--was unavailable as a soundtrack until 2003.


  1. This isn't normally my type of film, but your review has me thinking I should give it a chance. It would be interesting to see this early John Carpenter film.

    1. On the other hand, there is me, an avid lover of John Carpenter, a man for whom the drive-in movie theater was made. Even if he did come along more or less at the tail end of it's heydey. I saw this one only a few years ago, but I think it was worth the long wait. Haven't seen the remake yet. Not sure I care to. I might be too critical, as a fan is wont to be.

  2. I didn't expect this to be my kind of movie, but I caught it late one night and late one night is the only time to watch "Assault on Precinct 13".