Whenever I go back and watch early movies from some of my favorite filmmakers, it can be really surprising to see just how quickly they had developed their own style and voice. Assault on Precinct 13 is a perfect example of this. It’s John Carpenter’s second film, coming two years after his debut, the sci-fi comedy Dark Star, but it feels like it could have been his fifth, or his fifteenth. All the hallmarks that I associate with the director are here in full force: compelling characters caught in extraordinary circumstances, unique visual style, smart use of space, well-staged action, a sense of escalating dread, and of course, a memorable synthesizer score. Assault on Precinct 13 is a John Carpenter movie, but it’s also a John Carpenter movie, complete with everything that label implies.
The film is often described as a retelling of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo with elements of Night of the Living Dead added in. While it’s true that this movie was conceived as an homage to the classic western about a lawman defending his jail with the help of a ragtag group of misfits, Assault on Precinct 13 becomes something unique in the capable hands of Carpenter. The premise is virtually the same, and seems deceptively simple: a group of Los Angeles cops killed some gang members in a raid, so those gang members decide to wage war on the police. They wait until nightfall and attack precinct 13, a decommissioned police station that is being run by a skeleton crew consisting of Austin Stoker (Sheba, Baby), newcomer Laurie Zimmer, who walked away from acting just a few years after this movie, and a couple of performers that are stalwarts of early Carpenter movies, Nancy Kyes (aka Nancy Loomis) and Charles Cyphers. Darwin Joston (Eraserhead) and Tony Burton (Rocky) are prisoners inside the jail that further complicate the situation.
Prince of Darkness is here in spades. The sense of dread found in The Fog is also here. Even the terror of being pursued by an anonymous nightmare (the gang in this movie is essentially faceless) as found in Halloween shows up in Assault on Precinct 13. Carpenter also realizes that the real story is not the attack of the police station itself, but in the human drama of that experience. Much like The Walking Dead is about the survivors, this film is about the people inside the station and the unity they must find if they are to endure.
Before the violence breaks out at the police station, there is a clear power structure. The police are the good guys, the prisoners are the bad guys, and the staff at the station are just riding the clock on another workday. But things change when the siege begins. Carpenter calls into question everything these characters know, and also everything that we, the audience, expect. Consider a scene in which a girl visits an ice cream truck on the street. Carpenter knows what we’re expecting, and he subverts that expectation, showing us that nothing can be taken for granted in this film. In his hands, the traditional “tower defense” movie takes on a whole new life. Power dynamics are shifted, gender and race roles are tossed on their head, and everyone is placed on the same level as they fight to stay alive.
The cinematography was done by Douglas Knapp, who had worked with the director on his first feature, Dark Star back in 1974, but would go on to work with the camera department under Dean Cundey to capture the iconic imagery of Escape from New York a few years later. One of my favorite shots in Assault on Precinct 13 is when our survivors use an old wooden sign as a shield and slowly advance down a narrow hallway. Knapp gives us a POV shot of this as the characters move toward us, and then, once the fighting begins again, shows the same shot but with our heroes being pushed back the way they came. It’s a genius shot that conveys so much information and emotion. Similarly, the art director on this movie is Tommy Lee Wallace, who had also worked with Carpenter on Dark Star and would eventually become the production designer of Halloween and The Fog before graduating to writer and director himself, helming the much-maligned but now cult favorite Halloween III: Season of the Witch.
Carpenter movies can go to some pretty dark places, and this one is no exception, but I always feel like it’s done with a grin and a sense of humor. I’ve been watching a lot of lower budget movies during this look at the film of 1976, and it’s easy to get caught up in the status quo of what that meant at the time. I’d come to accept that with low budgets comes certain sacrifices, and that you can’t make a movie outside the studio system for very little money and still have a compelling product that feels big and has things to say. Then along comes Assault on Precinct 13 to remind me that the great directors can make fantastic movies with very little resources because that’s just what they do. This movie has been a breath of fresh air for me during this series; it’s a low budget film that doesn’t feel constrained by those limits. The story plays out in a solitary location, but doesn’t feel set-bound. The cast consists largely on no-name actors, but they give great performances. This movie is evidence of what a really talented filmmaker can achieve when they’re given total creative control (as Carpenter was) and allowed to pursue their vision without interference.
Read more of Heath Holland's writing at his blog Cereal at Midnight!