Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) is not John Carpenter’s first feature–he made his debut with Dark Star (1974), a college project he began at USC with fellow student Dan O’Bannon and expanded for theatrical distribution–but it is Carpenter’s first real solo outing. As writer and director, it’s his project from start to finish, and you can see it as a transition picture, between the hungry young student filmmaker of Dark Star, tossing together a project on a shoestring with friends, and the assured, commanding young professional of Halloween (1978) crafting a fully-realized feature with the control of a master storyteller. Assault on Precinct 13 is where he announces his influences, finds his strengths, and begins to develop his style.
Ostensibly an urban crime thriller of street gangs gone wild, Assault on Precinct 13 is a siege picture, a cross between a Howard Hawks western and a horror film. The model for the screenplay came from Hawks’ 1959 classic Rio Bravo, specifically the setting of a small group of lawmen and civilians holed up in a sheriff’s office under siege from a gang of gunfighters. “Assault on Precinct 13 came together very quickly,” Carpenter told Robert C. Cumbow. “An investor from Philadelphia had some money and said, ‘Let’s make a movie.’ And I said, ‘Let’s go,’ and I wrote the script in eight days. I wanted to do a western, but I wasn’t able to do a western, and it was the closest thing to it.” For Assault, Carpenter transforms the sheriff’s office into a small police station in a desolate, nearly abandoned Los Angeles neighborhood. The station is in the process of being shut down while the personnel is being transferred to a new station across town, and this practically abandoned building becomes the fort where a group of cops, criminals, civilians and office workers barricade themselves against an attack by a nearly faceless gang.
Plays Saturday, July 5 on TCM