RETRO REVIEW: “Assault on Precinct 13”

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Before John Carpenter became a horror movie icon for his 1978 classic “Halloween” he made a low budget crime thriller that wasn’t well received at first but eventually blossomed into a cult classic. Since then “Assault on Precinct 13” has gained wider appreciation from critics and huge respect for its impressive accomplishments with a shoestring budget.

Producer J. Stein Kaplan approached Carpenter about making a crime exploitation thriller with only $100,000 to work with. Carpenter would be given full creative control including handling the script. It only took him eight days to finish the story which he stated was heavily influenced by Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo” and George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”. You see those influences in a number of places. Casting an African-American in the lead role was significant. The plot itself features several callbacks to those classics.

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It takes place in a Anderson, California, a crime-riddled suburb of Los Angeles. After six members of a street gang are killed by cops their leaders form a blood pack to avenge their deaths. A series of events brings groups of people together in Anderson’s closing police precinct building. As night falls this group of policeman, prisoners, secretaries, and civilians must survive waves of attacks from heavily armed gang members until help can finally arrive.

Carpenter shot “Assault” in 20 days, meticulously planning his scenes to best utilize his limited funds. When watching the film there is no denying its minuscule budget. You see it in numerous places. But the sheer quality of the suspense trumps nearly every budget limitation. Carpenter demonstrates some of same bubbling tension that would later make “Halloween” so effective.

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Carpenter also handled the score, writing the music in only three days. While performing the music he relied heavily on synthesizers and drum machines. The score hops back and forth between surprisingly catchy hooks and tense minimalist chords. While it is absolutely a product of its time, Carpenter’s score does the most important thing – it serves the story well.

“Assault on Precinct 13” made its mark as a griping crime thriller that was never hampered by its low budget. John Carpenter’s violent tale taps into themes of racism, gender roles, personal responsibility, and inner-city violence while also being a groundbreaking action picture. Perhaps it hasn’t aged well in certain areas, but in terms of what I care about the most – high quality storytelling – it hits nearly every right note.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

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22 thoughts on “RETRO REVIEW: “Assault on Precinct 13”

  1. Yeah, an oldie but a goodie, and an homage to Carpenter’s favorite director, Howard Hawks, and his western classic, ‘Rio Bravo’. JC did a lot with the few funds he had on hand for this. Glad to hear you caught up to this, Keith. Nice review.

  2. Love to see the retro reviews. Another one I am blind too. When I started reading this, I for some reason had The Taking of Pelham 123 in my mind. No idea why, Carpenter didn’t direct that (original) did he?

  3. Carpenter’s western is a stone-cold classic and that ice van cream scene still makes my blood run cold. This is the film that Quentin Tarantino has been trying to make for the last 25 years.

  4. I fucking love this film. It is so intense and shocking. It’s really one of the most chilling as the ice cream scene remains one of the scariest and most unexpected moments in film.

  5. Great review and as mentioned above this is a genuine crime classic. Carpenter and his team had a gift to tell brilliant stories on small budgets; something some of the Hollywood filmmakers (e.g. Bay and Snyder) of today could learn from. Even the earlier works of fine directors such as Christopher Nolan and Peter Jackson are brilliant despite their low budgets; Nolan’s ‘Following’ and Jackson’s ‘Braindead’ are great examples of this. As ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ proves too: necessity is often the mother of invention.

  6. A blind spot for me, in terms of Carpenter’s films. I was reading an interview with him the other day, as it happens, which mentioned that the film was really popular when it was released over here in the UK, which to some degree helped Carpenter cement his status as a director (I think he took some writing gigs that he wasn’t too keen on to keep his foot in the door, so to speak). I’d like to watch it at some point.

      • absolutely! JC is the master of evil things trying to get into or break into places where our protagonists hide out in. heavy Hawks influence even though I’ve heard JC also cite NotLD as an influence as well.

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