It’s interesting what images stay with you from childhood, still crisp as the day they were viewed. I know like most kids growing up, in what sadly seems already like another time, I was exposed to a lot of television and film at a very early age, which made me into what I am today (which funny enough did not turn me into a thoughtless sociopath).

I saw images which still freak me out to this day, some of which took me years to figure out what films they were from: the dogs mauling Gregory Peck at the end of The Boys From Brazil; the truck il Lazaro dangling at almost a 50 degree angle on the collapsing rope bridge during a hurricane, desperately trying to get across in William Friedkin’s Sorcerer; George C. Scott’s hopeless race against death to try and figure out about the top secret government program that accidently poisoned him and his son, in his self-directed tour-de-force Rage; the reveal of Vincent Price’s face when his dead wife comes back from the dead in The Last Man on Earth; the entire film of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead; and low and behold, the death scene of young Kim Richards in John Carpenter’s classic, Assault on Precinct 13.

There are probably another ten movies I can think of that seared images into my brain from that impressionable age, but one of the most vivid is from Assault on Precinct 13.

I hadn’t seen the film since childhood and had been meaning to sit down and watch it after the remake in 2005, a film I purposefully haven’t watched yet, so I could revisit the original first.

I always knew it held up, and being a huge fan of John Carpenter and specifically his early work, I couldn’t wait to check this film out again. But funny enough, because of the brutality of the death of Kim Richards, I for some childish reason, put the Assault off.

I can’t tell you how impressed I was at the film, and of what young John Carpenter was putting out at the time. Not only did he direct the movie, (as would become the norm for Carpenter) he wrote and did the soundtrack. Not only does it hold up, it is still as chilling as it was when released back in 1976. Hell, Quentin Tarantino sites it as one of his favorite films of all time.

I think if helmed by another less talented or unskilled director, Assault could of just turned out to be another crappy 70’s action film that fell through the cracks of the era. But Carpenters direction and staging  goes beyond that, and turns it not only into a thriller, but seems to even present itself as a horror film.

Carpenter admits that after seeing Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo, the idea fascinated him of a group of people stuck within a single location, fighting for their lives against an outside evil. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead also comes to mind with this concept, which Carpenter also has spoken about influencing him, and this idea is something that will again surface in this filmography, in movies like his remake of Hawk’s The Thing from 1982, or more directly in his questionable attempt, Ghost of Mars from 2001.

What makes Assault a classic is its pacing. The evil gangs of L.A. are fed up and in an opening scene right out of the darkest horror him, they make a blood oath to fight to the death for each other.

They then begin an ungodly offensive against the city and it’s people, going out on suspense-filled rides, with a car filled with gang members and a high-powered automatic weapon and scope, trolling for innocent victims to murder.

These scenes are shot beautifully, as the viewer slowly sees the seductive barrell of the rifle poke out of the backwindow, and like a serpent, starts to look for victims.  The weapon becomes almost phallic as it finds a victim, before it goes momentary limp after loosing interest. Carpenter’s music is amazing here, and really adds to the suspense of the entire scene.

One of the best sequences in the film, and most famous

The first act ends with the shocking scene that burnt into my young impressionable mind (which I would hate to give away here in case you haven’t seen it, but it does involve an ice cream truck and a very young Kim Richards), the gang then follows an innocent father that flees to the nearby Precinct 13, which is within hours of closing it’s obselete doors for good because of department down sizing. There the gang surrounds the precinct and feeling slided after one of their leaders being killed, begins an unrelenting assault on the police station and it’s inhabitants.

The film is fairly low budget, being the director’s first official theatrical film (he had done Dark Star, his student film that ended up award winning and which allowed him to turn it into feature-length) but from Carpenter’s directing and editing you could not at all tell, and his shot composition really makes you believe that Los Angeles is decaying and only steps away from the fate of New York City in his 1981 film, Escape From New York.

Another chilling element to my young mind at the time was (if you take out the politics of urban street gangs and other things a young child would be oblivious to), the gangs in the film (to Carpenter’s credit), all become almost one entity, and are no longer viewed as a group of individuals. Much like the ghost pirates in his 1980’s The Fog, the group become a single mass, all working for one purpose, which is to kill the poor souls inside Precinct 13. They become like zombies out of the already mentioned Night of the Living Dead (not literally mind you), which I found truly terrifying.

A violent street gang named Street Thunder likes to kill people, including the ice-cream seller.

For the most part, the film is quite believable and plausible. And there are a handful of very scary, and quite a few memorable surprises in the film that are still brilliant.

So if you’re looking for a real treat, something from a master whose next film is now viewed as a horror classic, Halloween, check out  Assault on Precinct 13. It is a real gem of a low-budget 1976 film, and really gives insight into where Carpenter was starting to lean toward within movie genres.

And if you are anything like me, you’ll never hear an ice cream truck’s music the same way ever again.

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