October Extras 2: Assault On Precinct 13 (1976)

OCTOBER 6, 2008


In one of the stranger programming decisions I can recall, the Aero showed a double feature of Big Trouble in Little China and Assault On Precinct 13, in that order, but the only special guest for intermission was Assault’s Austin Stoker. So he did a Q&A for a film before it played. Most of the audience hadn’t seen the film yet, so it was kind of weird. But I didn’t care, because I had seen the film several times, as it is one of my favorite Carpenter films. Still, switch the order!

So today I am actually watching it with Carpenter’s commentary on, as it has been over a decade since I listened to it (on Laserdisc! Carpenter even alludes to switching to “side 2”, lol) and I recall it being one of his better ones. Also, now that I live out here, I know what the hell he is talking about when he points out specific LA locations.

It’s the first of what would eventually be at least five Carpenter films that focus, in whole or in part, of a group of folks that are trapped in one location and spend as much time fighting with one another as they do their common enemy (Prince of Darkness, The Thing, and Ghosts of Mars being the other 3 primary, and the 2nd half of The Fog follows this template to a degree as well). And even though it’s his least horror-y movie ever (it’s the only one of his theatrical films without even a shred of horror or sci-fi), the suspense is incredible - moreso than many of his subsequent films, if you ask me.

Another great thing is how it’s impossible to gauge who lives and who dies right off the bat, something many of these types of movies often fail to accomplish. The Assault remake got a lot of stuff wrong, but they wisely retained the “no one is safe” concept, which is why Maria Bello’s character was killed and not Drea De Matteo’s. And of course, anyone who has seen the film will never forget the film’s first (and still shocking) character death, nor will they likely ever order a vanilla twist from an inner city ice cream truck ever again.

One thing the remake definitely botched was the score. After Halloween I would say Asssault has Carpenter’s most memorable theme music (dun dananana. DUN DANANANA!), whereas the remake settled for forgettable, formulaic shit that you’d never want to try to spell out with a bunch of Ds, Ns, and vowels in a movie review. The laserdisc had the score isolated, which was great, and it also had the ice cream music for some reason. I forget if it was ever officially released on CD, but my friend figured out a way to get the isolated score onto a cassette tape (!), which was permanently located in my car for when I would drive around harassing single fathers and ice cream vendors.

On the commentary, Carpenter frequently points out how he should have edited the earlier part of the film down a bit in order to get to the action, which is an unfortunate result of his latter day approach to filmmaking. I think the film is perfectly paced, and I love the early stuff, as it’s rich with character development, and also has just the right amount of ominous dread contained within. Now he’s always in such a rush to finish a movie, he skips both the character AND the action, resulting in nonsense like the finales to both Ghost of Mars and Vampires.

It also began Carpenter’s tradition of memorable antiheroes. Napoleon Wilson may not be as great a character as Snake Plissken or Jack Burton (though I can’t help but wonder if I’d feel the same had Kurt Russell played the character, and the late Darwin Joston is pretty fucking great in his own right), but he’s just as compelling, and blows Laurence Fishburne’s generic gangster in the remake right out of the water. I’m always a sucker for any movie where bad guys team up with good guys to take on other bad guys, and this movie has some of the all time best moments of stuff on that angle. My favorite is when Stoker (the cop) tosses Napoleon his gun, which Napoleon then returns to him once the danger is eliminated. Fuck yeah.

One shitty thing about the DVD – its non-anamorphic (at least, the one I have is – I think it’s been double dipped to correct this, but I forget). Hopefully Blu-Ray will catch on enough for stuff like this to get released in the superior format (wouldn’t surprise me – this was actually one of the first DVDs released, so obviously it’s a title folks are after). I like my Nancy Loomis in full 1080p, thank you.

What say you?


  1. Pretty awesome movie, and certainly more thrilling than a lot of today's movies. I was lucky enough to find this in the bargain bin at Wal-Mart for just $5.50, but unfortunately that particular copy did not have the commentary. And yet they have the special edition of Terminator 2 for the same price. Assholes.


    Interestingly enough, I read that John Carpenter regretted his decision to kill off the little girl years later when he had a kid of his own. Does he say anything to that effect on the commentary?

  2. Yup. I get the impression that if he were to make the movie today it would be completely different (and pretty lousy).

  3. Carpenter's OST for 'Precinct 13' finally got an official release in 2003 on a French label, Record Makers. As a collector of Carpenter (and related) scores, I made do with a CD bootleg for many years (presumably taken from the isolated music on the Laserdisc) on the aptly-named "Vanilla Twist" label. Great music, although I would say his best work is for 'EFNY'.

  4. Assault on Precinct 13 is entirely awesome. Although it's hard to pick, I'd definitely say it's my favorite Carpenter score. I believe I read that it wasn't even released until 2003 as a French import.

  5. The name is escaping me, but some rapper guy interviewed carpenter in Rue Morgue last Halloween. He knew his horror shit and then talked about how good the music in AOP13. He ask permission to sample it. Carpenter said something like "I don't know anything about hip hop. Yeah OK."

    Good movie.

  6. Definitely a classic, though not without its flaws. Let's face it, the acting is awful and so is a lot of the dialogue, especially in the scenes between Darwin Jostin and Laurie Zimmer. Then there are the plot contrivances. Why wouldn't they have just taken the sick inmate to a city hospital, and had police arrive there to keep him under guard, and then continued to take the others on to death row, rather than going to the abandoned precinct? Because then there would be no movie...


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