Assault on Precinct 13 is where John Carpenter truly emerged.
Though Dark Star showcased a wry, inventive talent, Assault on Precinct 13 is where John Carpenter truly emerged. It is a film of almost elemental simplicity: derived from Howard Hawks’ bottle-episode drama-thriller Rio Bravo, Carpenter’s movie if anything pares down its inspiration even further. Its ragtag group of cops and not-so-bad criminals faces a gang that is reduced from mere bad guys into something vaguely inhuman, a shuffling horde of zombie-like figures bent only on destruction. Carpenter updates the western archetypes of Hawks’ film for the malaise of the late 1970s, presenting villains whose nihilism makes them unpredictable even as their movements are so lockstep.
Carpenter wastes no time setting down some of his most defining tropes of faceless and occultish evil, though intriguingly the film’s first act of wanton, unforgivable violence is actually committed by police. Encased in riot gear, cops ambush a local gang and mow them down indiscriminately, firing down into a narrow street as the young men flail and die. In response, the gang leaders resolve to seek vengeance by wreaking havoc, and their nearly silent meeting, in which a tacit agreement is reached and then sealed by pouring their blood into a bowl, establishes an unnerving, nightmarish tone to what otherwise might have been a simple case of cops vs. crooks. Carpenter’s deliberate sense of camera movement and editing establishes the relevant players who will have to deal with this coming outburst of criminal activity: easygoing cop Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker), who is given a cherry assignment of closing down a police precinct with a skeleton crew of a sergeant (Henry Brandon) and secretaries Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) and Julie (Nancy Loomis), and a prison bus carrying lifer Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) that breaks down by the precinct.
In broad strokes, Carpenter sketches these characters as largely affable and wry, with even convicted murderer Wilson given over to sardonic placidity barring a few pranks. Within minutes, these people establish a general rapport; early on, Leigh asks how Bishop takes his coffee by just saying, “Black?” Bishop cannot stop himself from replying “For over 30 years!” The geniality contrasts sharply with the portentous images of the gang leaders riding around town pointing silenced weapons at possible targets, finally settling on a young girl in front of an ice cream truck. Even in a filmography so defined by sights of bewildering, cosmic horror, the image the girl in medium close-up as blood suddenly sprays up from her stomach remains the single most brutal moment in Carpenter’s entire filmography.
These points converge, of course, on the precinct, where Carpenter stages a form of Lovecraftian siege warfare as gang members show up in increasing numbers deep in the shadows that hang in the deep background around the police station. Dark Star showed how well Carpenter could map out confined spaces through his direction, but it is Assault that truly shows off the style that would become his trademark. His camera moves in geometrically precise lines, tracking forward and side to side as he explores the limited corridors of the station, all of which represent possible points of invasion as the gang sends wave after wave of attackers. Much of the film’s early segments consist of laying out the station and its various nooks and crannies, so that at the height of the action one is able to keep tabs on every vulnerable point in the facility.
The action itself trades chaos for the even more horrible plod of deliberation. Compared to the savage ambush by cops at the top of the film, the gang acts like seasoned veterans of a bygone military era, marshalling troops and sending them in collected lines to overwhelm the station occupants with sheer numbers. When gang members get close, they reach into the station with the emotionless hunger of zombies, forming a mass of hands and weapons that grope after targets rather than panic or erupt. The action is matched by the electric prod of Carpenter’s score, which may still be the finest of his career. Variations on a theme that is itself the director-composer’s attempt to rip off Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” on a primitive synth, the soundtrack is inhuman yet oddly propulsive, a Viking invasion at half-speed that tampers the berserker rage of the original rock song in favor of the foreknowledge of successful conquest.
Befitting Carpenter’s Hawksian tribute, Assault on Precinct 13 manages to deepen its characters through their cooperation. Where Julie becomes more and more unhinged by fear, Leigh grows increasingly confident as a fighter, moving to the forefront of the battle rather than cowering behind a desk. Likewise, Bishop’s initial revulsion for Wilson morphs into genuine respect as the latter fights against the gang and proves to be an honorable man. These are simple character arcs for a simple film, but they add texture to the spartan concision of the film. Such touches also mitigate the nihilism of Carpenter’s tone, leading to one of the few endings in the director’s filmography to conclude on a note of hope and relief rather than plunging terror or outright annihilation.