Assault On Precinct 13 Review

Assault On Precinct 13 is one of the best low-budget action movies ever made and a model of good B-Movie filmmaking. It’s short, lean and agonisingly suspenseful, paying homage to its influences without ripping them off wholesale. Although it was only the second film directed by John Carpenter, it remains one of his most effective and it stands out as the movie where he began collecting together a reliable team of collaborators who stayed with him for the next few years, the period during which he made most of his classic films. There’s nothing particularly original about it and in some respects it does seem a little dated but when a film is delivered with as much style and pace as this, the flaws are very easy to overlook.

After an assault on some of their members by police, a Californian gang swear a blood oath to avenge the deaths of their brothers. When a further gang member is killed by the father of a girl who has been cold-bloodedly shot, the thugs discover that he is being held at an obsolete police station which is being supervised for the night by Lt. Bishop (Stoker). However, they don’t realise that the station is also housing Wilson (Joston), a convicted killer on his way to death row, and two other dangerous prisoners. As the gangs lay siege to the station, Bishop and the station receptionist Leigh (Zimmer) discover that they must join forces with Wilson if they are to have any hope of surviving the night.

It’s astonishing, in retrospect, how effective this film remains, despite certain facets which date it. There are, of course, no computers or mobile phones, both of which would intrinsically change the plotting, and the gang members would almost certainly be using automatic weapons were it made today – it will be interesting to see how the upcoming remake incorporates these changes in society. It’s also been said that John Carpenter’s synthesiser score is hopelessly dated and unintentionally comic – this is something I fiercely dispute. It’s as effective now as it was at the time and if you really can’t watch a film without giggling at the use of a primitive synthesiser then you shouldn’t be watching movies in the first place since you clearly can’t suspend your disbelief. So let’s instead look at the incredible achievement of the film. It cost $100,000 and not a frame of film is wasted. It’s as pared-down a suspense film as you could wish for with every element carefully placed to add to the development of the narrative or the characters. Carpenter’s use of real locations is masterful – the use of Venice Police Station as a location and the surrounding district of California, some kind of urban wasteland. The sense of sun-drenched day turning into seemingly endless night is beautifully evoked – the skies are often gorgeous – and this is something which links a number of Carpenter films, ranging from Halloween to Prince of Darkness. Indeed, the latter film is almost a remake of Assault on Precinct 13 with added supernatural bunkum. Also well in evidence is Carpenter’s ability to use the possibilities of the Panavision frame. This was his first film in 2.35:1 and his exploration of the far sides of the frame is one of the things which makes him a contemporary director as opposed to the directors who influenced him, most of whom hated having to use anything wider than 1.85:1 – and Ford and Hawks weren’t overly keen on anything wider than Academy ratio.

The key influence behind the film is Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. John Carpenter has gone on record as saying that Hawks is his favourite director and in this film he certainly shows signs of having learned some valuable lessons from the older filmmaker. His pacing is brisk without being confusing and he is careful to include minor diversions which enhance the piece without being absolutely essential. The conversation in the car between the father and daughter, for example. Since they are a plot mechanism to get the gangs to lay siege to the precinct, we don’t necessarily need to know why anything much about them or why they’re going into the dangerous Anderson district but the conversation which explains this both gives them a reason to be there and allows the characters to display some distinctive humour and a credible relationship. The same goes for the conversation in the bus between Stalker and Wilson when the latter has a great line; “Now, days for me are just like women. Each one of em is so goddamn precious And they always end up leaving you.” Inn some respects, Wilson is the most philosophical character in the film and his constant refrain of “Got a smoke?” makes him quirky and likeable – quite a feat considering he’s a convicted killer and something which obviously amused Carpenter.

This attention to character is something which denotes all of Carpenter’s best work and even his least interesting films are often good in this respect – the oddball group of vampire hunters led by James Woods in Vampires for example. Again, this is a lesson learned from Howard Hawks and the three leading characters in the film are very much in the Hawksian tradition. Wilson, witty and reflective, is far from the usual stereotype of a killer bound for death row and becomes something of an anti-hero. Leigh, the secretary – presumably named in tribute to the screenwriter of The Big Sleep, El Dorado and Rio Lobo, Leigh Brackett – is a classic Hawksian woman, resourceful and fiercely independent. Lt. Bishop is humourous, wry, honourable and tough – not at all unlike a Wayne hero in one of Hawks’ westerns (among whom John T. Chance stands out, and Carpenter’s little tribute to this character is the editor credit).

Of course, Bishop is also black, and the fact that this is rarely an issue, with the exception of a joke he makes when Leigh offers him coffee, reminds the viewer of Night Of The Living Dead. Nor is this the only reminder, since the sequences in which the scarily numerous and anonymous thugs attempt to storm the police station through the doors and windows are highly endebted to the similar sequences in Romero’s film. There’s a certain amount of Hitchcock’s The Birds in these scenes too. You’ll also spot more than a touch of Straw Dogs, particularly in the plot line of a collection of brutal thugs wanting to get at a man who they perceive to owe them his life. I also have to point out the presence of Henry Brandon as the desk sergeant - Brandon played Scar in another of Carpenter's favourite films, The Searchers.

Yet in retrospect, the film seems all of a piece and very much the original work of a director who knows exactly what he’s doing. Carpenter’s sense of pace (I disagree with his retrospective assessment that the film is too slow), his kinetic action scenes and his careful building of tension are all present here – along with some of his familiar collaborators including Tommy Wallace and Debra Hill - and these are the things which made his name in his next film, the extraordinary Halloween. If Assault on Precinct 13 is somehow less impressive than that later film, it’s still a superb thriller and the remake will have to go a long way to convince me that another version was required in the first place. Incidentally, as all fans of the film will know, the assault in question is actually on Precinct 9, Division 13 – but I think we can all agree that Assault on Precinct 13 is a much better title.

The Disc

Back in 2000, Universal issued Assault On Precinct 13 on a disc which contained a very poor transfer in the wrong aspect ratio. Since then, a special edition has been released in the USA by Image. Now, we have a new R2 disc from Contender which, while advertised as a special edition, only contains the film, a trailer and a very small photo gallery. Luckily, the transfer is of a very high standard and this compensates somewhat for the paucity of extras.

The film is presented in its correct Panavision ratio of 2.35:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. It’s an excellent picture, somewhat better than that on the R1 Image disc with less artifacting and more satisfying colours. The blacks are suitably deep and the colours are well defined. There is a very small amount of edge enhancement in occasional scenes and very small instances of artifacting, but overall the picture quality is exemplary.

The soundtrack is a Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono transfer of the original mono track. It’s a strong soundtrack, coping well with the limitations of the low-budget material and showcasing Carpenter’s pounding soundtrack. Dialogue is crisp and clear throughout.

The original theatrical trailer is included, looking a lot better than it does on the R1 Image disc. We also get a very small photo gallery in which the pictures are so small it’s sometimes hard to make out what they’re showing.

The film is divided into 16 chapter stops and there are, shamefully, no subtitles. This is particularly regrettable because the R1 edition doesn’t have any subtitles either.

Assault On Precinct 13 is a tough, exciting film which makes a great deal out of not very much. It’s one of the best exploitation movies ever made and deserves a wide audience. This DVD is impressive in terms of its transfer but the lack of extras makes the ‘Special Edition’ claim somewhat hard to justify.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 10:31:56

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