Assault on Precinct 13: 40th Anniversary Edition Review
John Carpenter followed up his stoner saga Dark Star with this bruising 1976 exploitation thriller, telling the story of a long, violent night as a downtown L.A. police station is besieged by a horde of thugs hellbent on tearing apart the unlucky few inhabitants. Chief among them is Bishop, a local cop who’s drawn the short straw and has been ordered to babysit the closed-down Anderson precinct for the night, accompanied by only a skeleton crew of the station’s secretary and telephonist. Unbeknownst to them a gang war has erupted on the streets after a police shooting – a war between the gangs and anyone who happens to get in their way – and after a terrible incident with a bystander and his daughter the station unwittingly becomes the focal point for the hoodlums' collective revenge. Thrown into the mix are a couple of convicts, one on the way to Death Row, after their prison transport gets diverted to the deserted locale. Everyone involved will be lucky to survive the Assault on Precinct 13.
By Carpenter’s own admission this was his first ‘proper’ feature, shooting on 35mm anamorphic to a set budget and schedule, unlike the student-level shambles that was Dark Star’s production. Although Assault... still only cost a couple of hundred thousand dollars (depending on who you talk to) it’s got surprisingly high production values, helped in part by the classy widescreen compositions, Doug Knapp’s effective lighting and Tommy Lee Wallace’s nicely lived-in production design. The movie flew under the radar upon release in the States before finding an audience in Europe, establishing Carpenter as one of the new breed of indie auteurs, cementing that status with his next movie: 1978's seminal slasher classic Halloween. But even now, 40 years hence, Assault... still carries with it a sense of raw power that has barely been tempered by time, the brutal violence and pounding synthesizer score (also performed by Carpenter) slowly building up the intensity until it reaches an action-packed crescendo.
Much has been said about how much Carpenter paid homage to his favourite filmmakers with this particular tale, relying heavily on Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo in particular (the siege template being a mainstay throughout Carpenter’s career), but the director also observes that it plays as much as a retread of Night of the Living Dead by George A. Romero as any of the Westerns which he adores, with the positive black protagonist fighting off hordes of faceless enemies. And, in keeping with Romero’s efforts, there’s also a sense of social consciousness behind Carpenter’s work, with Assault...’s downtrodden youth living in urban squalor reacting to police brutality and summary executions of their number with outbursts of violence of their own. Apart from the equal-opportunities make-up of the main gang leaders (white, black, oriental and latino) being a touch too idealistic this is spookily prescient stuff, not unlike Escape from New York’s reflections on the U.S. becoming a police state complete with fully militarised ‘troops’. Or perhaps it’s not so much prescient as much as it is that nothing’s really changed at the core of society? Whatever the case may be, Assault… has more going on behind its savage exterior than it may ever be given credit for.
If this film is the spiritual antecedent to Escape... then it also shares some DNA between the characters of Snake Plissken and Assault...’s Napoleon Wilson, one of the prisoners on the way to Death Row who ends up embroiled in a fight for survival. Both men are hardened criminals but very much anti-heroes with it, defying authority every chance they can get with audience-pleasing glee, and Darwin Joston absolutely nails the cigarette-craving insouciance of Wilson. (Heck, change his name to Plissken and this could almost serve as something of a loose prequel to Escape…, before society collapsed in the aftermath of WWIII.) Opposite Wilson is Lt. Bishop, the desk jockey turned beat cop who was given the glorious assignment of watching over the defunct Anderson precinct on his first night out. Austin Stoker assays the amiable officer and he does a fantastic job of conveying this honourable man who strikes up something of a bromance with Wilson. Two other stand-outs are Tony Burton as Wells, a fatalistic cell-mate of Wilson’s, plus the lesser-spotted Laurie Zimmer as Leigh, a poker-faced secretary. The rest of the main cast is filled out by people who’d go on to become a virtual repertory company for Carpenter, including Nancy Loomis as the nervous Julie and Charles Cyphers as Starker, plus Frank Doubleday putting in a characteristically kooky turn as the emotionless white gang leader. (Darwin Joston would also appear in The Fog a few years later.)
But all of this isn’t to say that the film is relentlessly hard-edged; it takes its time to set its stall out despite the lean 91-minute running time, establishing its main players and the internal geography of the police station with the sort of economical precision that’s borne from such a low budget, and yet it doesn’t feel rushed or hurried. There’s a streak of humour too, not the sort of ostentatious snark-filled asides that infest popular cinema today but the kind of workaday humour that people can find even in the gravest of circumstances. There’s even a moment when the two prisoners play ‘Potatoes’ to decide who goes outside, it comes across as whimsical and yet it speaks to the kind of closed world that these gents inhabit, where prison disputes can be settled by childish games just as easily as a shanking in the shower. And unlike Romero’s 1968 zombie film there’s room for a strong female character too with Laurie Zimmer’s raspy-voiced station aide, who’s as cool under pressure as any of the men and can handle a gun with surprising proficiency; just a simple shot of her snapping the cylinder of her revolver back into place with a single flick is enough to convince that this lass is not one to mess with.
John Carpenter wrote, edited, scored and directed the picture and it’s of a singular vision, possessed with a preternatural level of confidence that marks it out as one of his best works even today. As with many directors I feel that he did his most effective films when he was younger and hungrier, and even with all of the various homages it pulls off the trick of still retaining its own sense of identity, and should not be confused with the passable but entirely superfluous 2005 remake. I see no reason why Assault... shouldn't continue to endure, so here's to the next 40 years!
Assault on Precinct 13
has finally been released on UK Blu-ray and we have Second Sight to thank for it. Locked to region B, this high-definition disc comes packaged in a special limited 40th Anniversary Edition with soundtrack CD and five art cards. The film is presented in a newly restored version of an existing 1080p HD transfer, first seen on the US Blu-ray release from Image Entertainment, with Second Sight removing extra film artefacts like dirt and scratches which are otherwise visible in the Image edition. Otherwise the overall appearance is nigh-on identical to that US release, featuring a wonderfully stable scan in the correct 2.35:1 aspect with a distinct yellow/blue colour scheme, the golden yellow cast of the late afternoon scenes contrasting with the steely blue of the night-time assault. Blacks can occasionally look very thin, like during the opening scene, but this has always been the case and other parts of the film have much deeper blacks, even to the point of crush in a few sequences. The fog filter that was used after the lights are knocked out imparts a subtle kind of diffusion over the brighter specular highlights, something which is carried over nicely onto this transfer.
Detail is truly excellent, only hardening up a touch in the opticals along with some typical distortion from the anamorphic lenses, and there’s a very rough section from 54m:59s to 55m:43s which looks like a dupe of a dupe of a dupe, but it’s been there on every home video version I’ve ever seen so it’s nothing to worry about. Compression is so-so, as even with a very healthy average bitrate of 28 mb/s the encode is quite spasmodic in that one section of the film will look fine with a healthy dusting of grain but a few minutes later it’s lumbered with some extremely obvious macroblocking and banding (neither of which are present in the same places on the Image US disc, so it's not a source issue), but this is likely the sort of thing that will pass casual viewers by. Overall it’s still a good presentation of one of Carpenter’s most low-budget works of exploitation – people will be thinking to themselves that the visuals will hardly be akin to Lawrence of Arabia, so why complain? – but some extra care & attention on the encoding side of things really wouldn’t have gone amiss.
For audio we’re given the original mono track in uncompressed PCM and the 5.1 remix in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The mono is clean and punchy with a good helping of bass when called upon by the hulking synth music, while the 5.1 is an unusual beast in that it’s a very respectful upmix, primarily using the music to expand the soundstage with the odd piece of directional steerage as a character shouts from off-screen. Some sound effects have been changed but for the most part the gunshot effects are very faithful, it’s only during the final stage of the siege in the basement that things start to sound noticeably different, but not in a bad way. The 5.1 has a very decent dollop of bass too, again underlining the powerful score and giving a bit of kick to the big explosion in the final reel.
In terms of extras we’ve got a grab-bag of allsorts: some from Image’s 2008 US edition, some from Shout! Factory’s 2013 US Collector’s Edition and some are all-new creations, accompanied by some largely unseen vintage materials which are only available on this Second Sight Blu-ray release. First the old: the audio commentary from John Carpenter, where he has a tendency to narrate the action but still provides a plethora of insights, and the Interview with John Carpenter and Austin Stoker (in actuality a poorly-filmed Q&A from a 2003 screening of the film, 23 minutes, 576i PAL). Then there are the Shout! features which include the audio commentary with art director/sound designer Tommy Lee Wallace moderated by Michael Felsher, plus The Sassy One with Nancy Loomis (12m, 1080p), an interview with one of Carpenter’s go-to girls in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, Loomis having subsequently featured in Halloween and The Fog before retiring from the industry.
The new extras, made by US-based Severin Films for Second Sight, include Return to Precinct 13, a new 9-minute interview with Austin Stoker; Producing Precinct 13 with executive producer Joseph Kaufman (15m), and Filmmaking with John with Tommy Lee Wallace (21m), all of which are presented in 1080p HD. The participants quickly cover their initial introductions into the film industry before recounting their experiences on the film but you'll hear the same anecdotes repeated three or four times across the interviews & commentary tracks, and I often wonder if these piecemeal efforts would be better off edited into a proper 'making of' documentary - but alas, those just aren't in fashion nowadays. However, a real gem comes in the form of a short from John Carpenter’s student days, graciously provided by USC, called Captain Voyeur (8 minutes, 4:3 1080p). It’s not some lost masterpiece but Carpenter’s fluid tracking style is very much in evidence and the peeking in through windows at people engaged in all sorts of carnal acts certainly brings to mind Michael Myers in Halloween.
The stand-out extra in this whole set is Do You Remember Laurie Zimmer?, a 2003 documentary (53m, letterboxed 576i PAL) from French filmmaker Charlotte Szlovak, who directed Laurie in her last film appearance (which was never released, though clips of it are spread throughout the documentary) before she went to ground and disappeared entirely from acting altogether. It’s a fascinating tale of Charlotte’s search for Laurie, taking in plenty of interviews from her Hollywood contemporaries of the time and the occasional publicity stunt (like driving a billboard around L.A. plastered with Laurie’s photo) in her quest to find out what happened to the mysterious actress. The disc lacks the stills galleries from previous releases and there’s no isolated score unfortunately (though the audio CD is likely intended to fill that gap, it wasn't provided for review but is hopefully closer to the Death Waltz release rather than the dreadful re-recorded BSX disc), but there is a Trailer (2m, 576i PAL) and some Radio Spots (1m) to round off the package. (One last little thing to note is that the disc's menus use a really tiny font for some reason.)
John Carpenter’s siege thriller is a potent piece of work that still has the capacity to royally entertain, be it the dry repartee of the characters, the stark violence or the tension-soaked action, and this belated UK Blu-ray is a fine celebration of Assault on Precinct 13 with good (if uneven) video quality, excellent audio and a sterling array of extras. Anybody got a smoke?