Following the release of his first feature, Dark Star, John Carpenter was given carte blanche on his next film. The only catch was he had to stick within the limitations of a very small budget. Carpenter wanted to direct a Western, but he knew he wouldn’t have enough resources to make a period piece, so instead, he wrote the script for Assault on Precinct 13 – a highly stylized, modern-day take on Rio Bravo, with a nod to Night of the Living Dead.
Although not a straight remake of Rio Bravo, the plot owes a lot to the classic Howard Hawks western. An officer, with the help of a secretary, and a convicted killer, are forced to fight off a mob of murderous gang members while stuck in a soon-to-be-shutdown police station, now under siege. Assault on Precint 13 is a remarkably confident sophomore effort, considering Carpenter wrote the screenplay, edited the finished product, and composed the music for the film. And while it ins’t his first feature, Assault on Precinct 13 was technically John Carpenter’s first incursion into professional filmmaking.
As an editor, Carpenter does an excellent job, tightly knitting the action in ways which blend an old-fashioned patient approach with more contemporary methods. Assault on Precinct 13 is a tense, tightly constructed series of action and escalating tension and Carpenter quickly establishes his characters without wasting time upon unnecessary exposition. It is a narrative designed to quickly grab your attention and hold onto it for 90 minutes. (It should be noted, Carpenter used the pseudonym of John T. Chance for his film editor’s credit, which was the name of John Wayne’s character in Rio Bravo).
As a director, Carpenter wrapped up principle shooting in just 20 days, an unmistakable success, given the lack of experience behind the camera. Of all of Carpenter’s films, Assault has one of the strongest social commentaries, and Carpenter allows the film to manipulate the audience’s emotions without insulting their intelligence. There is no mistaking the modern racial and sexual moral codes of behaviour encoded in this ultra-gritty, urban siege thriller. The Street Thunder Gang are no different than the zombies in Romero’s classic, and the occupants held up within the police station are forced to fight side by side, regardless of age, sex or race.
As a composer, Carpenter’s moody synthesizer sounds are minimalist but bleak. The music is simple, but suits the steady pacing and is incredibly effective in helping ratchet up the tension. Reunited with Douglas H. Knapp, his cinematographer on Dark Star, Assault also features superb photography which does a fine job in absorbing the space of the location and allowing the camera itself, to appear as the point of view of an additional occupant. Assault on Precinct 13 is a masterclass in tight, tense low-budget action filmmaking, where not a single frame is wasted in conveying suspense and drama. Even in the earlier scenes which run longer than necessary, by design, generate a seductive air of impending doom. Assault is lean, sometimes shocking, tense, taut and ranks as a cult action classic. This is essential viewing for anyone tracing the career of John Carpenter.
– Ricky D