When he's on form, John Carpenter is one of the few directors who can inspire real fear in his audience. Forget aimless nonsense like "The Blair Witch Project" and submit to stripped-down terror - naked, raw, without rules, and directed with ruthless passion. Often described as a melding of Howard Hawks' "Rio Bravo" and George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead", this is one of the ultimate siege movies.
Much of the opening half hour is a little patchy but the cold hearted slaying of a young girl acts as warning enough to the viewer that this is a film that takes no prisoners. Her shocked father goes after the gang that murdered her and manages to shoot one of them dead. This only antagonises them and they chase him to a police station where he seeks refuge. So all is well? Not really, as Precinct 13 is being shut down and there are only a duty male and female officer manning the telephone along with two criminals bound for death row in the clink. The understandably distraught father is unable to tell them what has happened and while he's having a breakdown the attack begins.
The gang want revenge and they will kill every one of the occupants in the building to get it. Naturally they cut the phone lines, and eventually the power too. But at no time are there any real exchanges of dialogue. All we are faced with is an enemy that is cold, brutal and terrifyingly merciless.
The minimal script is complemented in turn by Carpenter's music score, which is as unsettling as the gang itself. There is, however, a considerable amount of humour that allows the audience brief (if nervous) moments of respite only to be reawakened by another shock. But in essence the core reason this film works so well is that it is so unpredictable, ruthless and without reason.