3.5 out of 5 stars

John Carpenter’s gut-punching, take-no-prisoners second feature demonstrated that, in the hands of a master, less can be so much more. Shot in three weeks with limited locations, no-name actors, and a tiny budget of $100,000, Assault on Precinct 13 made a virtue of simplicity. The narrative is dedicated to a single concept, of a group of people defending a police station against a gang attack.

The dramatic set-up is very much that of a last-stand western, with a disparate group of characters forced to ally under threat from implacably hostile forces. Indeed, Carpenter originally wanted to make a western—Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) was an inspiration, but there are obvious resemblances to John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) as well. In tone and feel, though, Assault on Precinct 13 is less a western than a horror movie (and certainly it has little in common with most police or crime films of the period, even if there;s some connection to the then-popular vigilante genre). George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) was another starting point for Carpenter (and Romero in turn was a fan of Assault) and the influence is unmistakable.

The gang members swarm, they’re barely characterised, they barely speak, for much of the film we never see them close up, and their motivations are given only a cursory glance. They’re pure threat, pure otherness. Individual scenes and shots as well—notably one with Lawson (Martin West) fleeing in panic to the police station following the murder of his daughter—have far more in common with horror than with any western or cop movie.

Assault on Precinct 13 begins as it means to continue, with Carpenter’s own famous five-note musical motif—reminiscent of John Williams’ shark theme for Jaws (1975)—repeated over and over on synth and drum machine as the plain, blood-red titles roll. Both the simplicity and the sense of foreboding set the mood for the movie to come. (Although it’s worth noting that, as elsewhere, with his score for Assault Carpenter is subtler than it may seem. The five-note theme is not actually used that much and is contrasted later with other material such as a more contemplative and varied four-note phrase. It’s also interesting how the opening theme, which sounds so ominous at the start of the film, has taken on a triumphal air by the end.) 

A subtitle informs us that we’re in Anderson, California, “a Los Angeles ghetto”, and the action begins quickly with a group of gang members caught in a police ambush, shot dead apparently without being given a chance to surrender. A police chief heard on the news acknowledges that “law enforcement is being driven to deplorable extremes”, but insists that “the juvenile gang problem is completely out of control.”

To today’s audiences, in a culture that’s grown to be outraged by racially oriented brutality among US police officers and the LAPD in particular, the instinctive reaction may be one of furious astonishment rather than relief. Things were somewhat different in the 1970s when anxieties about urban violence were being further fuelled by the growth of gangs such as the Bloods and Crips in Los Angeles, and the reference to a ghetto clearly hooks into audience fears. But while the film exploits these, again Carpenter presents a more balanced picture than might be initially apparent.

The protagonists’ struggle is one for survival, not vengeance, and while there’s certainly little human or likeable in the film’s gang members, Carpenter also acknowledges the police are hardly faultless with the deep irony of the “deplorable extremes” line. And, notably, he’s careful to avoid dividing characters along racial lines. The lead role as police lieutenant Ethan Bishop is filled by a black actor (indeed one known for blaxploitation film), Austin Stoker, while the gang leaders are a mixture of black, Latino, and Anglo.

Gender isn’t the line of distinction that it might conventionally be, either—Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) is a capable sister-in-arms to Bishop—and nor, even, is criminality. One of the convicts being held at the besieged precinct, Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), takes a leading role in defending it from the gang too.

The important thing, really, is not precisely who the characters are but their situation. Carpenter underlines this by showing how they come from such varied places before being made exactly equal by their shared peril. Bishop starts the day at his suburban home, the prisoners are being transported between jails, Lawson has stumbled into the precinct after the shooting of his young daughter and an ice-cream seller in the film’s most shocking and blackly hilarious scene.

Assault on Precinct 13 falls broadly into two parts. The first is devoted largely to establishing how all the key people end up at the police station where they’ll be besieged—not just its staff but also Lawson, the convicts, and their guards—and also to briefly introducing the gang and building a sense of menace. It’s here Carpenter excels. Anonymous, scrappy, near-deserted locations (chainlink fence, weeds, trash, peeling paint) and flat lighting combine to give the sense of a horror film where something unspeakable is about to erupt, and ordinary objects (notably vehicles) come to seem utterly sinister. 

Then, at almost exactly the halfway point, the gang’s onslaught on the police station, sparsely staffed and equipped because it is due to be permanently closed the next day, begins… and the mood changes dramatically. (The station is actually “Precinct 9 Division 13”, not Precinct 13, an odd anomaly usually attributed to the distributor thinking it made for a better title.) 

From here on Assault on Precinct 13 is almost entirely action. The pace is faster, and the lighting makes greater use of strong shadows. This is completely logical in the context of the story, however, as there’s zero affectation in the visual style of Carpenter (who also edited it) and cinematographer Douglas Knapp (who’d also worked on the director’s 1974 debut Dark Star). Simplicity reigns, the camera often remains static at a medium distance and straightforward 90-degree angle from its subjects, and many shots are quite long-held.

The filmmaking style is completely subsidiary to the Manichean concept, then, and so are the characters. None of the people of Assault on Precinct 13 is more than roughly sketched, and the actors do little to fill them out, although Zimmer gives Leigh some personality. Joston’s Wilson is perhaps the only character to be engaging in himself: a bad guy who becomes a good guy and who is simultaneously affable and dangerous. It’s evident from the first time we meet him that Carpenter’s screenplay is taking a special interest in Wilson. “I was born out of time,” he says, and it’s the movie’s most overt reference to its origins in the western genre: Wilson would surely be more at home on the frontier of the 1880s than in 1970s L.A.

Assault on Precinct 13 isn’t without its weaknesses, notably some clunky dialogue (particularly where Leigh explains the local geography to Bishop) and questionable acting (Lawson’s shooting of a gang warlord, before he gets to the police station, is risibly performed and not a very believable thing for him to do anyway). But finely-honed details and subtle nuances are hardly the point. Assault on Precinct 13 gains its still considerable power from its energy, atmosphere, and sense of doom—not from particular incidents or people or ideas. It’s a lean, mean film where everything is reduced to basics. The police station is claustrophobic and almost stripped of the trappings of civilisation; the only priority of the people inside is survival; and the gang outside is violent, nihilistic, and dehumanised. (It’s also a movie best seen on the big screen, as you need to be immersed in it.)

And if occasional forays into darkly surreal humour (like the ice cream shooting or the sudden game of Potatoes at a moment of extreme peril) risk distracting the viewer in a way that undermines the film’s accumulating effect, they’re scant enough to make little difference. 

The movie bombed in the US at first but the enthusiastic reception in Europe saved it from disappearing, and before long American critics and audiences also came to relish its unsettling qualities. A few years later, after Carpenter hit the big time with Halloween (1978), Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times that Assault showed him to be “an extremely resourceful director whose ability to construct films entirely out of action and movement suggests that he may one day be a director to rank with Don Siegel”, while noting that “a lot of its eerie power comes from the kind of unexplained, almost supernatural events one expects to find in a horror movie but not in a melodrama of this sort.”

Carpenter is, indeed, surely a bigger name than Siegel now. After Assault he went on not only to Halloween but to a string of usually well-regarded movies in many genres, ranging from The Fog (1980) and The Thing (1982) to Escape From New York (1981) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986). None of the other personnel associated with Assault had anything like such an illustrious career, but then the film doesn’t give anyone but the director much of a chance to shine anyway. 

It was remade in 2005 with Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, and some plot changes, to a lukewarm reception. That’s unsurprising because it’s the kind of movie which is difficult to repeat. Even if fine films like Reservoir Dogs (1992) are clearly influenced by Assault’s combination of narrative economy, extreme violence, and physical confinement, the mixture itself is not sufficient to guarantee success. What made Assault on Precinct 13 work so well isn’t so much the elements themselves as Carpenter’s focused concentration on them, and the result is a tour de force of intensity which at its best moments can seize the viewer as powerfully today as it did 45 years ago.

USA | 1976 | 91 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writer & director: John Carpenter.
starring: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston & Laurie Zimmer.