John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 was released in 1976 and was the director’s second full-length feature film. The movie tells the story of a few people trapped in an almost abandoned police station that is under siege by a gang of street killers. If that sounds like the plot to an exploitation feature, that’s because it is. Assault on Precinct 13 was made on a low budget but never lets that get in the way of the action, suspense, atmosphere, or even the score (though, it might get in the way of some of the acting). While it isn’t always action packed, it surprisingly keeps the attention of the viewer and is never exactly boring, thanks to the aforementioned suspense and characters.
Shot in glorious Panavision, Carpenter makes very good use of the anamorphic widescreen format. For a film that doesn’t always have a lot going on and takes place in the dark half the time, the format never seems to be put to waste. Nearly every shot takes advantage of the space that the format provides it with. The score (composed by Carpenter himself) is excellent and is only composed of synthesizers that not only sound creepy but really help establish the paranoid atmosphere of the film. Right from the opening titles (red letters on a black background), the score lets you know you’re in for something serious.
Serious seems to be the word in this film. Majority of the characters (which include a cop, two secretaries, and a couple of convicts) take everything as serious as can be. The convicts are mainly the ones in charge of the comic relief; they have a sense of humor, but are not merely there for comic relief alone and get serious when the time calls for it. The film also has a few moments that impressed me (one in particular shocked and impressed me) but that doesn’t mean the film as a whole isn’t good; just some moments are more eventful than others. On that note, I’d like to say this: Exploitation films typically have filler (people just talking, that sort of thing) but this movie, while not always full of action, never seems to have a moment of filler. Every scene seems to be there for a reason, and for a film where the siege doesn’t occur until the half way point, that’s pretty impressive.
Assault on Precinct 13 isn’t the best action movie I’ve ever seen; it could’ve been better, but for a second feature and for a low budget movie, it’s actually really good. It just happens to suffer from the ol’ it-could-have-been-better problem. But even with that in mind, it managed to keep my interest, managed to have plenty of suspense, and had really good action scenes. The acting is okay, but the characters themselves (especially the convicts) can be entertaining (in a low budget kind of way, I guess). Overall, it’s a really good movie that is worth checking out, especially for Carpenter fans. When it comes to low budget exploitation action, or just action in general, this one delivers.