John Carpenter’s classic dystopian shoot out movie is a vision of today’s America.
Assault on Precinct 13 is a 1976 American action thriller film written, directed, scored, and edited by John Carpenter. Austin Stoker stars as a police officer who defends a defunct precinct against a relentless criminal gang, along with Darwin Joston as a convicted murderer who helps him. Laurie Zimmer, Tony Burton, Martin West, and Nancy Kyes co-star as other defenders of the precinct.
Carpenter was approached by producer J. Stein Kaplan to make a low-budget exploitation film for under $100,000, on the condition that Carpenter would have total creative control. Carpenter’s script, originally titled The Anderson Alamo, was inspired by the Howard Hawks Western film Rio Bravo and the George A. Romero horror film Night of the Living Dead. Despite controversy with the MPAA over a scene involving the violent killing of a young girl, the film received an R rating and opened in the United States on November 5, 1976.
The film was initially met with mixed reviews and unimpressive box-office returns in the United States, but when the film premiered in the 1977 London Film Festival, it received an ecstatic review by festival director Ken Wlaschin that led to critical acclaim first in Britain and then throughout Europe.
In South-Central Los Angeles, a local gang, Street Thunder, steals a cache of assault rifles and pistols. At 3:00 am on a Saturday in Anderson, a crime-infested ghetto, a team of heavily-armed LAPD officers ambush and kill six members of the gang. Later, the gang’s four warlords swear a blood oath of revenge against the police and the citizens of Los Angeles.
One of the film’s distinctive features is its score, written in three days by John Carpenter and performed by Carpenter and Tommy Lee Wallace. Carpenter, assisted by Dan Wyman, had several banks of synthesisers that would each have to be reset when another sound had to be created, taking a great deal of time. “When I did my original themes for [Assault] … it was done with very old technology,” replied Carpenter. “It was very difficult to get the sounds, and it took very long to get something simple.” Carpenter made roughly three to five separate pieces of music and edited them to the film as appropriate.
The main title theme, partially inspired by both Lalo Schifrin’s score to Dirty Harry and Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”, is composed of a pop synthesiser riff with a drum machine underneath that “builds only in texture, but not thematically,” according to David Burnand and Miguel Mera. A held, high synthesiser note, with no other changes except inner frequency modulations, becomes the musical motif of the gang members, and reoccurs during certain violent acts in the film. In the film, synthesisers and drum machines represent the city and the gang.
Although the film’s title is Assault on Precinct 13, the action mainly takes place in a police station referred to as Precinct 9, Division 13, by Bishop’s staff sergeant over the radio. The film’s distributor was responsible for the misnomer. Carpenter originally called the film The Anderson Alamo before briefly changing the title to The Siege to shop to distributors.
Over the years, the film has received acclaim from critics, emphasising John Carpenter’s resourceful abilities as director, writer, editor, and music composer, and Douglas Knapp’s stylish cinematography, as well as exceptional acting from Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer, and Tony Burton.
John Carpenter won the 1978 annual British Film Institute award for the “originality and achievement of his first two films”, Dark Star and Assault, at the 1977 London Film Festival.