Assault on Precinct 13 – Help! We are Surrounded week

This is Help! We are Surrounded week. Assault on Precinct 13 is currently available on instant Netflix.

WATCH: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) – Rated R.

“This taut action flick from writer-director John Carpenter pits an understaffed police station against a bloodthirsty gangs angry horde gathering outside the precinct walls. Before Carpenter hit pay dirt with slasher and sci-fi fare (Halloween, Escape from New York), he directed several low-budget, suspenseful thrillers. Assault on Precinct 13, co-starring Austin Stoker and Darwin Joston, is among his best.”

“Look at that, two cops wishing me luck. I am doomed.”

Okay first a pet peeve. I understand that it is a rough job describing the eight billion movies on Netflix but many of them contain wildly inaccurate information. For example here they say that John Carpenter directed several suspenseful thrillers before Halloween. Umm actually just this one – the only other feature film he directed pre-Halloween was Dark Star, a science fiction comedy.

John Carpenter begins this film with his signature synth music. It works quite well here as in most of his films.

I am not going to comment much on the acting here. Carpenter, one of my favorite directors, has never been an actors director and here his cast are complete unknowns. They are serviceable enough for the story.

John Carpenter wrote the story and script. I really liked that even though the gang members are clearly the villains here, they have a real motive for their actions. In the beginning of the film, the police gun down a fair number of the gang (in a shocking act of brutality). This is just the first in an escalating series of events.

John Carpenter takes Rio Bravo and gives it an urban update. He also appears to take some inspiration from Night of the Living Dead (mindless hordes attacking the building) and throws in a bit of Once Upon a Time in the West.It is clear that he really wanted to make a western but the western was essentially a dead genre by the 70s.

Part of the reason I like John Carpenter is that almost all of his films are different from both Hollywood norms and his own films. His remake of The Thing is nothing like the original. The only two films of his that I did not find original were Village of the Damned and Escape from L.A. and those are probably his two worst films.

Assault on Precinct 13 itself would go on to inspire The Warriors from Walter Hill and Assault would be remade (but obviously uninspired) in 2005 with Laurence Fishburne and Ethan Hawke. The only thing the remake has on the original is the presence of several good name actors and strangely this did not make for a better picture.

Nancy Loomis who plays Julie here would go on to work with Carpenter on Halloween (as Annie Brackett) and The Fog (as Sandy Fadel).  Charles Cyphers who plays Starker here would go on to become a Carpenter stalwart appearing in Halloween I and II, The Fog, Elvis!, and Escape from New York for him.

There is a hilarious moment thirty minutes in where Carpenter breaks one of the cardinal Hollywood taboos. This scene caused the film to be threatened with an X rating so the film was submitted without the scene, got an R rating, and then released with the scene.

The siege is well-filmed and tense and takes up more than half the running time. John Carpenter keeps the action zipping along straight through to the ending.

I highly recommend this exciting low-budget action film.

People Watch: Look for John Carpenter as one of the gang members climbing through a window.

John Carpenter

John Carpenter is one of my favorite directors. I’ve been a horror junkie since I was a little kid watching the Universal classics on the Saturday TV matinee. My mother’s boyfriend took my sister, mom and I to see Halloween during its initial run and it was the first movie that ever scared the crap out of me. My friends Chuck, Mike, Calvin and I enjoyed Escape from New York and the Fog growing up

For my 18th birthday Mike and I went to see what I feel is Carpenter’s masterpiece, The Thing and it was the third film to ever really scare me (Alien was the 2nd). The effects were outlandish and completely over the top but what has really stuck with me through years of repeat viewings is how marvelous a portrait of paranoia this is. Other well-done paranoid films deal with the hero/heroine not being able to trust people/organizations/government. Carpenter took that a step further – while Kurt Russell is nominally the hero, the entire ensemble cast can’t trust each other and the film’s ending reflects that mindset.

I’ve really enjoyed John Carpenter’s films. He made some more really good films (Big Trouble in Little China, In the Mouth of Madness, Vampires) and even his not-as-good films are fascinating (Village of the Damned, Ghosts of Mars). 3 of John Carpenter’s films are available on instant Netflix as well as 2 episodes of Showtime’s Masters of Horror that he directed.

Assault on Precinct 13

1. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) – “This taut action flick from writer-director John Carpenter pits an understaffed police station against a bloodthirsty gang’s angry horde gathering outside the precinct’s walls… Assault on Precinct 13, co-starring Austin Stoker and Darwin Joston, is among his best”

This early effort is very tense and co-stars two of Carpenter’s regulars Charles Cyphers and Nancy Kyes. It is essentially an urban update of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. Carpenter would of course go on to remake Hawks’ The Thing from Another World. Look for the early scene in which John Carpenter breaks one of the Hollywood cardinal taboos.


2. Starman (1984) – “In this sci-fi love story from John Carpenter, Jeff Bridges — who received an Oscar nod for his work — plays Starman, an alien who crashes on Earth and takes the form of a recently deceased man in order to evade authorities. On seeing the image of her dead husband before her, widow Jenny (Karen Allen) is frightened. But eventually, Starman wins her trust — and her affection — and she agrees to help him return to his home planet”

A rare light-hearted film from Carpenter, this story really works because of Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen. A sweet romance with a science fiction background and a dollop of humor, this is a good date movie.

Prince of Darkness

3. Prince of Darkness (1987) – “A cylinder of mysterious, green liquid is found in an abandoned church. It may contain the ultimate evil: an ancient iniquity that longs to escape. Several physicists try to comprehend what’s happening and race to save the world, even as they’re being turned into zombies one by one. Director John Carpenter fills Prince of Darkness with his trademark mix of horror and humor.”

One of my favorite horror movies (I’m a sucker for apocalyptic movies), this one does suffer from the somewhat wooden performance of the two young lead actors but is redeemed by  wonderful performances from Donald Pleasence (Halloween) and Victor Wong (Big Trouble in Little China). Though the movie is serious horror, many of the names are in-jokes such as written by Martin Quatermass (actually written by Carpenter).

Cigarette Burns

4. Masters of Horror: Cigarette Burns (2006) – “Hired by a millionaire collector (Udo Kier) to retrieve the infamous Le Fin du Monde — a violent movie that reportedly causes viewers to turn into homicidal maniacs after they watch it — an unsuspecting theater owner (Norman Reedus) begins to fall under the film’s spell. John Carpenter directs this unsettling installment of the “Masters of Horror” series, following one man’s search for the holy grail of horror cinema.”

This is definitely one of the best Masters of Horror shows.  Sadly that isn’t saying much – many of the episodes feel like they paid the directors to put their name on the show. Cigarette Burns is disturbingly creepy and darkly funny.


5. Masters of Horror: Pro-Life (2007) – “When a scared 15-year-old girl (Caitlin Wachs) goes to an isolated clinic to end her pregnancy, her anti-abortion activist father (Ron Perlman) and brothers arrive, heavily armed and determined to force their way in and stop the procedure. But there’ll be hell to pay when the baby’s unearthly father gets involved. Emmanuelle Vaugier and Mark Feuerstein co-star in this episode of the spine-chilling Showtime series, directed by John Carpenter.”

Wow talk about your wasted potential. Take one of my favorite directors, add an underrated genre actor (Ron Perlman) and top with an interesting premise – this should have been knocked out of the park. Unfortunately it feels like John Carpenter was just in it for the paycheck. It is watchable but nothing special.