Assault on Precinct 13 was John Carpenter’s first major directing debut. It was terribly remade in 2005 but the original version is a must-see. It has been hailed as a cult classic and cited as a major influence by many filmmakers including Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) and Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained). As well as being influential, the film owes a major debt to the films before it: George A. Romero’s zombie horror The Night of the Living Dead and Howard Hawks’ Western, Rio Bravo which both explore characters in confined locations under threat by external forces.
This film explores a group of individuals: an imprisoned criminal, a rookie lawman, and two female secretaries in an empty police station one the eve of its closing. In the course of the film, a violent street gang sieges the station in what turns out to be a cross between the explosive gun violence of an action film and the tense atmosphere of a horror. The reason for this siege is conveyed in the opening scene as the police gun down a group of criminals. It is an act of violence that instigates a consequential wave of retaliatory attacks that culminates in the station’s siege. In this opening scene, the criminals sprawl around the station as their blood colours the walls in red. From this shocking opening, the film establishes its tone: one of tension that simmers and is ready to explode at any moment. This tension is at the heart of this cult classic, a world in which the characters and the audience are lulled into a false sense of security which is interrupted by explosions of violence. In the same vein as Carpenter’s Halloween, the film explores the manner in which irrational circumstances and violent people confront ordinary people. This is confirmed by the film’s notorious ice cream scene which perfectly captures the manner in which Carpenter can take something as safe as an ice cream van, and make it become the stuff of nightmares.
The shocking violence, great action set pieces and tense atmosphere contribute to making the film a must-see. However it is also the manner in which Carpenter manages to transpose the archetypes, themes and setting of the classic Western film to a modern world in the same manner that Sam Peckinpah did with Straw Dogs. In many classic Westerns, there is the exploration of law versus disorder but Assault on Precinct 13 subverts this convention. In the traditional Western, like Rio Bravo, it is never in doubt that the figures of justice and law will succeed; assuring that the immoral villains will become victims, and lawful figures victors. However, Carpenter’s film explores the manner in which the survival of the protagonists remains dubious. The figures of law become the victims in the face of unbridled criminality. This is conveyed literally by the fear the protagonists have but also by the manner in which the heroes act more like prey in the beginning of the film. The subversion of law is confirmed by the metaphorical and symbolic meaning of the police station as it represents law and order, its siege metaphorical of rape symbolizing the rape of the law by the lawless.
Furthermore the film adopts the Western theme of individual power versus that of authority. This ‘individual’ is usually embodied in the form of the gunslinger or the lone hero who has no moral obligation but chooses to take on responsibility. This idea is explored in Carpenter’s film by the manner in which the protagonists must resort to violent methods in order to fight off criminals. In the traditional Western, the actual police authority forces are helpless; Carpenter explores this idea as, early on in the film, an entire group of armed policemen are gunned down by just one criminal with a sniper rifle. The four people trapped in the police station must rely on their own strength rather than any external authority.
Superficially, Assault on Precinct 13 is a thriller but underneath its techno synthesizer score and modern day setting it is a thinly disguised Western. Carpenter sidelines the role of law by presenting a situation in which justice and law are upheld by the citizens rather than any higher authority. Carpenter’s marriage of genre is what makes Assault on Precinct 13 a must-see cult film.