Assault On Precinct 13 (1976)
Awhile back I reviewed the 2005 remake of ‘Assault on Precinct 13’. While it was a solid piece of action driven piece of entertainment is was a bare shadow of the 1976 original. There were several factors in play that support this contention; some of derivatives of cult classics rarely if ever match the cinematic value of the original. Making this consideration timely, even though both movies have had their releases a considerable time ago is the current trend for remake, reboots and re-imaginings are gaining momentum and at times seem to threaten to overshadow original content. At one point to in order to consider remaking a film a significant amount of time was permitted to pass but now a literal handful of years appears to be permissible. At the current rate the remake of this film is eligible for the reboot treatment. Perhaps at one time there might have been greater justification for this marketing ploy but as far as the fans go in this era of DVD, Blu-ray and streaming video you can readily enjoy the original film instead of settling for some cheap knock off. Although the remake’s director, Jean-Francois Richet provided a thrill ride that was satisfying as heart pounding thriller ought to be he could not capture the nuances that John Carpenter infused in all of his films. In many cases, as demonstrated here, the financial resources provided to the filmmaker of the remake greatly exceeded the original inevitably the second film inevitably lack the panache or the original. In 2005 over twenty million dollars was budgeted for the reimagining while less than $100,000managed to bring in the 1976 classic. Sure I will concede inflation precludes a direct comparison of these figures but the discrepancy is far too large for that to be the dominant factor. That goes to the efficiency and business sense of the filmmaker. I almost hate to say it but in many ways the films of my younger days just out class films of similar type than those produced today. As a general rule of thumb remakes cannot live up to the original.
At the heart of both films is a story that has been used successfully through time, a small determined group valiantly holding a much larger, heavily armed force at bay. It was the basis of still studied military tactics as with the Spartans at Thermopylae or more local in time and space, the Battle of the Alamo. It is just human nature to admire such acts of bravery standing up against impossible odds. It is literally the stuff legends are made of. Although many story tellers have done well in utilizing this theme few have managed to do so with the unique take deployed by John Carpenter. He would continue to use variations on this plot device to drive his long and successful career in horror movies making him one of the masters of that genre. He realized that the few, out matched and vastly outnumbered engages the audience not only for the bravery and commitment displayed by the few but that there is an intrinsic element of terror that flows out pervading the audience. Whether it is a survivor girl in a horror flick of a pair of men defending a deserted police station from a gang of killers the psychological effect is identical; the heart pounds, breath rate goes wild and every sense is heightened.
The movie opens in Anderson, a section of Los Angles dismissed by most as a crime ridden ghetto. What makes this particular day different is recently on of the more violent street gangs known as ‘Street Thunder’ came into possession of a sizable quantity of automatic weapons. A group of heavily armed police officers ambushed members of the gang in hopes of recovering the rifles and guns. In the raid several members of the gang are killed. This results in the leaders of the gangs swearing a vendetta against the police and the citizens of the city. It is at this point Carpenter begins to weave the individual threads that tell the story together. Newly promoted police First, Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is assigned to oversee the packing of the decommissioned station in the area, precinct 13. It is a babysitting job far from what the new officer expected for his first command. The only other cop there is Sergeant Chaney (Henry Brandon) plus two civilian secretaries, Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) and Julie (Nancy Loomis). A bus transporting prisoners has to make an emergency medical stop when one of the detainees becomes ill. Against his better judgments the officer in charge, Starker (Charles Cyphers) stops at 13 placing his charges in their cells. In a scene considered exceptionally graphic and overly brutal a member of the gang shoots and kills the driver of an ice cream truck and the innocent little girl who only wanted a treat. The girl’s father kills the gangster but is chased by the other gang members. The panicked man takes refuge in the station unaware it is all but deserted.
The brilliance of John Carpenter was relatively evident in this, one of his early works. It is important to keep in mind that 1976 was in the height of the grind house era. This is a period during which exportation movies dominated the neighborhood theaters and drive ins. Television had made its mark in entertainment causing many once splendored theaters falling into disrepair relegated to showing films made quick and cheap. Men like Carpenter learned a lot about sticking to a shooting schedule and staying within a tight budget during these lean days. As a result Carpenter and other filmmakers who would rise to greatness quickly came to appreciate mentally story boarding their films so as to avoid wasting precious film and time. Each take ebbed away at the available funds unlike digital movie making so Carpenter had to develop an eye for getting a shot an=d the ability to trust his instincts. The result here does fit the hallmarks of a grind house exploitive movie but it also showcases a remarkable filmmaker just coming into his own with his craft.
Carpenter took the age old situation of the siege and gave it a modern twist; phones out, no help in sight, limited resources within. This is perhaps one of the oldest military problems known to man, defense of a fixed location by much more powerful army. In this film the new lieutenant has one ally, a heinous criminal, Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston). His brutal nature and intimate knowledge of criminal activity made him a natural tactician. As any military man will tellyou the only way out of this situation is tactics, will and sheer grit. As you watch this classic take note how much of carpenter’s style translated directly to his horror films; isolation, unstoppable foe and terror.