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Why Every John Carpenter Fan Should See Assault on Precinct 13

Before he was a horror master, John Carpenter made a '70s action gem.

By Matthew Jackson
Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) holds a gun in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976).

In 1978, John Carpenter released Halloween, setting his career on the trajectory we all recognize now. Today, Carpenter is recognized as a master of the horror genre, and his work on Halloween is what kickstarted it all, but while Carpenter's horror output is legendary, it's not the only thing he can do. In fact, the only reason we have Halloween in the first place is because of Carpenter's previous film, a low-budget action exploitation thriller that, horror or not, every Carpenter fan should see.

Released in 1976 and produced on a shoestring budget that made even Halloween look expensive, Assault on Precinct 13 is Carpenter's attempt to get in on the exploitation crime cinema action of the '70s, but it's also his homage to films like Rio Bravo (made by one of his favorite filmmakers, Howard Hawks), and Night of the Living Dead, a movie that combines various genre elements with great success to deliver something gripping, tense, and often surprising. Plus, if you're a longtime Carpenter fan, you'll find plenty of hallmarks from throughout his career that seem to originate right here in this movie, and it's streaming right now on Peacock so you can see for yourself.

For More on John Carpenter:
Your Guide to John Carpenter's Suburban Screams

The Definitive Oral History of The Thing
Every John Carpenter Movie, Ranked

Why Assault on Precinct 13 is essential viewing for all John Carpenter fans

The plot is relatively simple. The film is set primarily in and around the title police precinct, a Los Angeles station that's set to be decommissioned and closed in just one day. Because it's ready to shut down, the precinct is operating with almost no staff, just Lt. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker), Sgt. Chaney (Henry Brandon), and receptionists Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) and Julie (Nancy Loomis). Their job is supposed to be simple, and they've already begun directing people to the new precinct location. There's just one night left in the old Precinct 13, but a convergence of events, including a prisoner transport gone wrong, an escalating gang presence in the area, and a group of vengeful criminals, set out to make that last night a living hell. 

So, the "assault" of the title basically becomes a siege, as Bishop and his coworkers attempt to survive the night with a little help from a couple of convicted felons caught in the station at the wrong time. Like Rio Bravo, it's one of those movies about a small band of people who have to stick together for their own survival, and because Carpenter clearly knows that dynamic well, he's able to really stretch the premise in very interesting ways. 

Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) speaks to Julie (Nancy Kyes) in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976).

But this isn't just Carpenter riffing on the best parts of other people's movies. It's only his second feature, after the sci-fi student film Dark Star, but already you can see the master at work here, and find motifs that will follow him for the rest of his career. Do you love Carpenter's ability to make danger appear suddenly out of the dark, as in Halloween and The FogAssault on Precinct 13 has that. Do you love his ability to photograph broken down cities and emphasize the crumbling systems that are supposed to support us, as in Escape From New York and They LiveAssault on Precinct 13 has that. Do you love his ability to deliver shocking violence? Assault on Precinct 13 has that, including what might be the most brutal and shocking death in Carpenter's entire filmography, and that is no small feat. 

So, if you're a longtime fan of Carpenter's horror output, and you're looking to expand your journey into his filmography, make sure to make time for Assault on Precinct 13. It's not just a great action movie, but a vital key to understanding how his career evolved.

Assault on Precinct 13 is now streaming on Peacock.