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The Test of Time: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.

Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, and Laurie Zimmer.

If anyone has ever read a Test of Time or The F*cking Black Sheep column, it should be no secret that I love me some John Carpenter. There’s something about his combination of music, pacing, tone, and style that works perfectly. It’s not so much that the movies themselves are flawless or even completely original (Carpenter openly admits to paying a whole lot of homage to Howard Hawks’ 1959 classic Western RIO BRAVO Bravo many, many times over), but his final products are uniquely Carpenter. Much like a Scorsese or Tarantino or Hawks, certain directors have a singular voice. Ok, Carpenter isn’t on their level for pure artistic vision, but no one can deny the man made his own unique place in Hollywood. However, after 40 years does Carpenter’s first true feature film hold up against the test of time?

Under the examination: ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 .

PC gangs out of contol!

THE STORY: If anything, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 is a tale of bad luck and shitty timing. First, we have a rainbow collation gang roaming LA, looking to do very bad things, randomly killing people for fun. It just so happens that a father and daughter are out, only to have the daughter brutally gunned down because she wanted ice cream at the wrong time. The dad takes quick revenge, but then retreats to the nearest police station. It also just so happens that the station, Precinct 9 (don’t ask about the title), is in its final day where Lt. Ethan Bishop (Stoker) has taken over for the day. At the same time, a prisoner bus has pulled into the precinct because of a sick convict and everyone on board is stored in temporary holding cells, including the notorious Napoleon Wilson (Joston), a bad man who just wants a smoke. Long story short, the gang attacks the station, forcing everyone inside (including the convicts and the staff) to team up to survive.

They had one bad night.

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: I would have to assume some people out there might find John Carpenter’s synthesizer score a tad bit repetitive. I’m not one of them. No, his relentless (dun dun da dun dun) creates constant tension, the kind where you squeeze your butt cheeks together for 20 minutes at a time and never realize it. His score also creates perfect continuity. While some movies allow the score to take over or even distract (I don’t know how many times I exhaustively rolled my eyes during BATMAN V SUPERMAN…tone it down, fellas), Carpenter’s music plays like another character. It’s one of his greatest strengths.

While I know ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 was initially criticized for its violence (it received an X rating), it’s fairly average compared to today’s standards. Well, save for the shooting of a little girl at an ice cream truck. That remains pretty f*cking brutal. But more so, even if the violence isn’t at the same level of 2016 cinema (not saying that’s a bad thing), it’s more of the sheer chaos of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 that holds up.

I don't think I'd want a hunting rifle during a seige.

In fact, it’s interesting that the 2005 remake went for a more detailed and specific revenge plot. I enjoyed that aspect of the remake because it did something different; it made that movie its own thing. The pointlessness of the 1976 violence is what makes the movie. I don’t mean that Carpenter didn’t have a point. No, I mean the pointlessness of the gang violence, a group some mean and nasty that they’ll kill everyone for the hell of it. The bad guys continue to filter in through the windows and hallways, keep getting shot at, and keep on coming. Now that is a scary damn thing.

The cast is pretty decent, but there’s a reason no one here went on to super-stardom. However, each one delivers, with Austin Stoker being the standout. His character of Bishop seems like a real dude, and I like the fact the race only plays a little bit into the movie. While Carpenter’s dialogue will never be confused with Tarantino, it’s pretty great here with some witty moments and memorable lines. It’s all a precursor to what he’d do later in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, with a bigger budget and a better cast.  

Showoff. 

WHAT BLOWS NOW: As much as I like the character of Napoleon (especially since he’s such an obvious precursor to Snake Plissken), actor Darwin Joston just isn’t menacing enough. He’s good, he’s charismatic, he’s enjoyable. But does he evoke fear? No. Does he come off like a badass, the kind of man who everyone in the country knows and fears his name? No. If it were Kurt Russell or someone like that? Well, duh. That’s one area where the remake improved on the original: Laurence Fishburne fit the role of being and looking like a cooler than cool dude.

Oh, and shouldn’t Lt. Bishop or Napoleon have known what the Cholo ritual was? The movie made it clear that Bishop grew up in a rough area, and if he made it to the rank of lieutenant, the man surely knows a little more about gang violence than that. Granted, this was 1976 and they didn’t have channels on TV dedicated to explaining and glorifying gang activity, but still…he needs to pay a little more attention…maybe even read a few trade magazines even if it were a new thing. Hell, it’s clear he’s a smart dude. He comments about sunspots causing bad things to happen. Same for Napoleon. It seems like he would know a few more things as smart as he pretends to be. Minor issue, yes, but annoying.

Shouldn't they have let people know before the final day?

THE VERDICT: ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 is not John Carpenter’s masterpiece. No, but that’s a good thing, because that would mean he reached his peak in 1976. Instead, it’s a solid action, siege movie that takes the elements of the Western and places them in modern context. This isn’t the deepest movie ever produced nor one with a thick plot. But who cares. The simplicity of it is what makes the thing work. And let’s face it. John Carpenter was at his best with a limited budget ($150,000 was low even for ’76), simple plot, and creative characters. That’s what the man did with aplomb, and ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 represents that pretty f*cking well.  

GET ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 BLU RAY HERE

GET ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 DVD HERE

Fun times!

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