Within the first few seconds of Assault on Precinct 13, you know you’re in the company of John Carpenter. As his foreboding synth score pounds over the opening credits, the film is immediately unmistakably Carpenter. Amazing, then, that this is only his second feature film as director.
Released only two years before he unleashed Michael Myers on the world in 1978, Carpenter’s vision here is eerily prophetic. Despite being criticised for being improbable upon release, the film has since become shockingly relevant throughout the years. As gang culture has grown, the ideas presented within the film have become more and more believable – and in recent years, exacting revenge against the authorities and fighting back for fallen comrades isn’t exactly a foreign concept.
Assault on Precinct 13 follows Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker), a newly promoted officer assigned to take charge of a decommissioned police precinct during its last few hours before being closed. With a skeleton crew of Sgt. Chaney (Henry Brandon) and two secretaries (Laurie Zimmer & Nancy Loomis), they find themselves having to defend the precinct from an impending siege as revenge-sworn gang members attack, following the police force’s murders of their comrades.
Assault on Precinct 13 screams low-budget 70s exploitation with every frame, but in the best possible way. With complete creative control, Carpenter was free to make a name for himself with the violent and thrilling film – but critics and audiences didn’t get it. It received mixed reviews and unimpressive box office returns in the US – but at the ’77 London Film Festival, it received critical acclaim. Europe followed in this outpouring of love, and the film has, quite rightly, become a classic. It’s gritty, harsh and exhausting – and one hell of a ride.
Somewhat rare for a film from this era in ‘The Master of Horror’s career, this film is not a horror. Although it has moments that are frightening just for their brutality – the ice-cream sequence, for example – it isn’t the usual supernatural slasher fare. And just like Carpenter’s chilling 70s horror classic, Precinct 13 was given an unnecessary remake in the 00s. Who needs that, when you have this timeless piece of work?
Assault on Precinct 13 holds up impeccably as a thrilling exercise in tension, and Carpenter’s first masterpiece.