For a film that came out in 1976, over 30 years ago, there’s a lot that modern day filmmakers can learn from John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13. An action thriller by billing, the film is, at heart, quite a simple tale: the final night in a soon-to-close police station finds itself under siege from a street gang hell-bent on revenge against the cops. It ain’t going to be pretty.
Inside the station? Not many people at all. Ultimately, it’s the cop assigned to see the station through its last few hours, a convicted murderer and a pair of secretaries. There’s not much more than that to defend the building from the incoming threat of a rampant gang determined to kill everyone inside.
But then there’s the small matter of Lawson, who also makes his way to the police station in search of help. In the moment that rocks the film very early on, destabilising it for entirely the right reasons, Lawson’s young daughter is attacked and brutally slayed by the aforementioned gang while simply buying an ice cream. It’s a cold-blooded, shocking attack, and one not played for glamour or attention. Instead, given how early into the film the killing comes, it sends chills down the spine, and for once, you go into the main body of a film feeling that anything could happen. It helps that the cast is made up primarily of unknown actors: bluntly, you feel that nobody is safe at all.
It’s the moment that, crucially, was diluted for the decent-but-nothing-more 2005 remake, and nearly got the chop from the original film after a battle with the ratings board. Yet, and given that I watched the film for the first time just a few years’ ago, it still has quite extraordinary power and shock value. It’s, simply, the last thing you expect to happen.
But Assault On Precinct 13 is far more than a film about one moment, however defining that aforementioned scene may be. Because what then follows is, bluntly, an expert going about his business.
Wringing tension from his water-tight premise, Carpenter goes on to deliver a template example of how to make the most out of your resources. Not a high-budget film by any stretch, Assault On Precinct 13 nonetheless uses its primary location in a wonderfully sinister way, with superb use of sound and light to ratchet up the tension at the right moments. Combined with shots of shadowy figures running around, and built on characters you end up giving a damn about (no matter how morally ambiguous they are), it’s a lean, exciting action thriller, and absolutely not the kind of film that anyone can make.
If you want proof of that, you can’t help but turn to the Ethan Hawke-headlined remake, which was released in 2005, and directed by Jean-Francois Richet. Remakes of Carpenter films are notoriously not very good, but Assault On Precinct 13 didn’t turn out too badly. That said, it lacked anywhere near the levels of tension and unease of its far cheaper predecessor, and it failed too to match the sheer feeling of claustrophobia of Carpenter’s original.Assault On Precinct 13 isn’t my favourite Carpenter film. After all, the night I watched The Thing for the first time in the dark will always take some beating, and I’m half-tempted to send the man my dry cleaning bill. But it’s a quite brilliant, extraordinary tense piece movie from one of cinema’s most treasured directors of the last three decades. The man may be billed as a master of horror, but Assault On Precinct 13 ably demonstrates his ability to wring excitement and chills in other genres too.
Don’t believe me? Then this, friends, is a DVD worth relieving yourself of a fiver for…
Check out our interview with John Carpenter here.