Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Compact, economical, rousing, funny and great cinematic storytelling… I could be talking about a film by Anthony Mann from the golden age of Hollywood or something by Howard Hawks. A stirring film, without any messing about. Instead, I’m talking about the second full length feature made by John Carpenter in 1976.

Carpenter would have fitted in well in the golden age of Hollywood, being a journey man director working on horse operas and B horror films. He would have belonged there. Instead he appeared in the 70s with a joy for great cinema that was gradually ground of it him by the system. But we have a few classics to treasure. Today on the blog I’m doing two John Carpenter films. This, Assault on Precinct 13 and what I consider his last film Ghosts of Mars.

So, what’s to recommend about this one? Well, the script is great, tight economical and well written. The atmosphere is there, aided by a great score by Carpenter that he knocked together in 24 hours (because this film was very low budget). The action is fun, and he doesn’t dwell on the violence too much (he never has).

Carpenter uses the frame more cinematically than most directors, and even here with a tiny budget it looks like a great film. Carpenters control of what goes on within the frame is evident in every shot.

The film was a success in Europe at the time, and Carpenter has always been well considered here. Recently I went to the Leeds Film Festival for a Q&A held with Carpenter. He’s in his 60s now and spiky, funny and chilled out. He doesn’t suffer fools either and seemed irritated by some of the inane questions.

Before this was a student film called Dark Star which got a theatrical release, after this came his career proper which included Halloween, Escape from New York, The Thing, The Fog, They Live, Starman, In the Mouth of Madness and a few other classics. When asked about shooting Assualt on Precinct 13 Carpenter said “I was very young, it was a 29 day shoot, I was worn out very quickly – it surprised me how much hard work it was.” He’s an honest guy, a lot like his films.

So next, I’ll look at Ghosts of Mars from 2001…

So, 39 films to go…

Matthew Cooper has written for Emmerdale, Eastenders, Hollyoaks and Family Affairs. He was winner of the first ever Lloyds Bank Channel Four Film Challenge and the Oscar Moore Screenplay Prize. His first short film starred a then unknown Ewan McGregor and was picked up by Channel Four when Matthew was 19 years old. He’s been a script writer for hire and filmmaker for hire for over 20 years.