The siege as a narrative device runs throughout John Carpenter’s work, but nowhere is it as raw and unvarnished as Assault on Precinct 13. The premise is exquisitely simple: the inhabitants of a Los Angeles police station must survive the night under siege from rampaging gangbangers whose only goal is to murder everyone inside. The uneasy alliances between cop Ethan (Austin Stoker) and temporary inmates Wilson (Darwin Joston) and Wells (Tony Burton), and their fight against a seemingly unstoppable enemy recalls 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, but it is to Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo that Carpenter pays the most explicit tribute.
Setting his film in the modern Wild West of South Central LA, Carpenter populates it with an anti-hero in Wilson, who is as quick on the trigger as he is with his wit. Had Assault on Precinct 13 come later in Carpenter’s career, long-time collaborator Kurt Russell might have played Wilson, but as it is, Joston is absolutely the right fit at the right time for the doomed Wilson. Elsewhere, Laurie Zimmer – the elusive subject of a fascinating investigative documentary – channels Lauren Bacall and Angie Dickinson in equal measure. The weak link comes from distraught father Lawson (Martin West), gibbering and gurning his way through a minimal role that serves only as a plot device. Additionally, Charles Cyphers is a little wasted as warden Starker, who is abruptly dispatched at the end of the first act.
Performances aside, it is Assault on Precinct 13’s texture that is its most compelling quality. Filming on a modest budget of $100,000, the film exudes grit and grime in every scene, depicting a nightmare world of rampaging criminals, brutality and violence. Carpenter would later explore dystopian and apocalyptic themes in his science fiction films, but both are rendered here with a vivid rawness that is at just one remove from reality. The nightmarish aesthetics of the film pervade throughout: the obvious dubbing and flat-sounding gunshots are likely a product of low-budget filmmaking, but the sound design nevertheless recalls the Italian westerns as well underscoring the film’s dreamlike quality. It’s impossible, of course, to discuss Assault on Precinct 13 without noting its score.
Little more than a three-minute theme, it’s the first of Carpenter’s iconic electronic melodies and easily the equal of Halloween, The Thing and Escape From New York, it’s a masterclass in minimalism and mood. While perhaps not as refined as The Thing, as cartoonishly entertaining as Escape From New York or as harrowing as The Fog, Carpenter’s second feature is nevertheless a triumph of low-budget filmmaking. An affectionate remake of Rio Bravo, a vital moment in the career of one of cinema’s most important directors, and a searingly tense thriller in its own right, Assault on Precinct 13 is essential viewing.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell