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.
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.
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