Assault on Precinct 13 was released in 1976, the second full length film to be directed by John Carpenter
. It was filmed with a low budget of $100,000, and a cast of unknowns.
The plot is more or less an updated version of Rio Bravo, the 1959 Howard Hawks-John Wayne western, but set in a soon-to-be-closed police station in 1970s Los Angeles and with a slightly contrived plot. A handful of cops and secretaries are waiting for the final removal of the stations paperwork before it is closed down, when a prison bus transporting three death-row prisoners arrives. One of the prisoners needs a doctor and the prisoners are put in holding cells until medical help can arrive. A man enters the prison in a state of shock, and as night descends a street gang lays siege to the station, cutting the power and phone line and shooting with silencers to avoid attracting attention. Sounds implausible I know, but if you accept this the film is entertaining viewing.
Assault.. has one of the most shocking and unexpected murders in cinema history, just watch out for the ice-cream van and the small blonde girl to see what I mean. The street gang are menacing and with barely a line for motives or explanation are effectively stripped of their humanity. The constant stream of gang members battling their way into the station before getting shot and killed is reminiscent of the zombies from Night of the Living Dead, and the dark photography and tight editing makes the viewer feel as claustrophobic as the characters fighting for their lives in the police station.
The acting in the film is not brilliant, but the lead actors (Austin Stoker and Darwin Joston) along with some memorable dialogue helps mask some of the flaws. The back story of the characters never intrudes on the situation, the prisoners who help the cops keep the gang at bay when the desperateness of the situation is revealed, but it is hard to tell whether this act is from sheer self-preservation, the chance to arbitrarily kill the gang members or because they are genuinely following whatever form of morality they prescribe to. Ambiguity is a good thing in thrillers.
The film is also notable for some early trademark Carpenter synth score, and for a ending that gives little clues to the future fate of the characters, plus an good adaption of the Rio Bravo, "shooting sticks of dynamite like clay pigeons" ending. It is certainly a better film than any of Carpenter's recent efforts and is always worth a look when it appears on late-night television.