John Carpenter in Review: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Plot: The staff of an abandoned police building finds themselves under attack by the countless members of a local gang.
The movie takes place in a particularly crime-ridden section of South Central Los Angeles, where for some reason, the titular police precinct is being shut down. It is their last day, and they weren’t expecting too many problems so they were left with a skeleton crew. Early in the day, a prison bus transporting some convicts, one of whom has a particularly violent history, makes a stop at this nearly abandoned police building to get medical treatment for an ailing prisoner.
As this is all going on, a local gang known as “Street Thunder” was raided by the LAPD. The surviving members have sworn a blood oath against the cops and have started causing all sorts of chaos on the streets. After one of their members kills a young girl and an ice cream truck driver, the girl’s father turns against them. He is able to kill his daughter’s killer, but he quickly realizes he is out-gunned and out-manned. He too finds sanctuary in the police building, but he also brings them to the attention of the gang leading to an explosive shoot out.
Assault on Precinct 13 is more than capably directed by newbie John Carpenter. It mixes grainy ’70s auteur style with a classic Western set-up (literally, it is the same story as Rio Bravo). Hand and hand with the ’70s style is a collection of exploitation tropes. The first act is a chess game getting the three separate storylines together so they can get to the nitty gritty. It starts out very slow with what will become a trademark of John Carpenter flicks, the eerie synth theme. The cast is an archetypal group of horror survivalists with enough charm to make it apologetic. Their simplistic character development keeps the action of the whole thing moving at a great pace much in the same way the exposition does. The claustrophobia is tortuous making the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The excessive violence creates a real threat without juvenile gore. It is also very clear who the bad guys are. This isn’t a morality tale, just a balls-to-the-wall action-thriller.
The villains really stand out here. Their creepy outward appearance has a ghoulish presence. They are a hive mind enemy voiceless and in the shadows hiding around every corner. Their nature implies a supernatural essence. Killing one seems helpless when there are a hundred more waiting to take his place.
Assault on Precinct 13 is an awesome cheapie that milks every penny of potential out of its resources and talent. It is an exceedingly effective horror thriller.