Assault on Precinct 13 Collector's Edition Blu-ray Review
Written and directed by: John Carpenter
1976, Region A, 91 minutes, Rated R
Blu-ray released on November 19th, 2013
Darwin Joston as Napoleon Wilson
Laurie Zimmer as Leigh
Martin West as Lawson
Tony Burton as Wells
Charles Cyphers as Starker
Nancy Loomis as Julie
Kim Richards as Kathy
Anderson, California, is a crime-ridden shithole of a town. The cops have just slaughtered six gang members in a brutal ambush and now the city is the target for criminal vengeance. Meanwhile, the local police station has relocated and Ethan Bishop, a newly appointed lieutenant, is supervising the final night of the old facility as the remaining staff pack up the last of the office supplies. Elsewhere in the city, a prison bus is transporting a handful of convicts, including the notorious Napoleon Wilson. One of the men gets sick in transit and the guards are forced to stop for the night at the newly closed Precinct 13. Tying all of these elements together is a grieving father who has just committed murder and is being pursued by gang members as he seeks shelter inside the police station.
Bishop is forced to rely on the assistance of Wilson and the other prisoners when the building comes under attack by a multi-racial gang of inner city thugs. Wave after wave of violence strikes our heroes as the antagonists slowly advance toward their goal of street justice. The gang members use silencers on their weapons and make clever use of abandoned cars in their assault and it is quite some time before anyone in the neighborhood, much less other police officers, know anything is even happening at the old facility. Our protagonists are on their own and despite their depleted resources, must fight back if they hope to survive the night while the neighborhood quietly goes to hell around them.
One of director John Carpenter's earlier efforts, Assault on Precinct 13 is an impressive exercise in suspense, delivered with limited resources and a solid screenplay (that he also penned under an alias). Carpenter has cited the influence of filmmaker Howard Hawks on more than one occasion, and this film plays as a remake of Rio Bravo and John Wayne's The Alamo mixed with more than a hint of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. There are no ghouls here; instead the horror on display comes from the streets and the outside world. The men inside, Bishop and Wilson, are throwbacks to an earlier age when people lived by a code and understood words like 'honor'. The story is deliberately paced and is a slow burn to the rewarding final battle.
The cast is pretty awesome, as everything feels natural and nobody appears to be “acting”. Austin Stoker (Abby) carries the picture handily as Bishop, a man caught in a bad position through no fault of his own, but determined to emerge with as few casualties possible. Darwin Joston (The Fog) is instantly likeable as potential antagonist Napoleon Wilson, who despite his criminal history is every bit a straight shooter as his law enforcement counterpart. Laurie Zimmer rounds out the principal players as Leigh, the receptionist determined to walk out of this situation alive. She is every bit as tough as her male counterparts and is never in danger of becoming a weak female stereotype for the men to save.
The film features an equally strong supporting cast led by Tony Burton (Rocky) as Wells, a fellow convict from the bus. He offers a solid performance that matches those of the leads and supplies a much needed dose of comic timing. Genre fans will want to watch for Charles Cyphers (Halloween II) in the small but memorable role of Starker, the prison official. Also on hand is Carpenter favorite Nancy Loomis (Halloween), who turns up in a brief appearance as Julie, the skittish switchboard operator. Lastly, Kim Richards (Escape to Witch Mountain) is given the most memorable appearance in the film as the little girl with a craving for vanilla twist ice cream.
Assault on Precinct 13 contains elements that would return in several later Carpenter films, most notably Ghosts of Mars, but also in The Thing and Prince of Darkness. The characters are forced to band together for survival from the oncoming threat. These are not archetypes, but rather well-rounded individuals developed through their actions, without wasting time on exposition. Not everything is flawless in the production, but Carpenter manages to succeed more often than not and it is interesting to see how many elements associated with his career are on display here in 1976. This film was remade almost three decades later to mixed reviews and is not a bad effort. As is the case with many high-budget Hollywood remakes, the best thing to come of the exploitation of a cult classic is that the original is frequently lifted from obscurity and receives a nice deluxe edition on home video.
Video and Audio:
Scream Factory pleases once again with a solid transfer that is presented in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and is quite satisfying. Colors are strong with natural flesh tones while black levels are rich and immersive. The print is in surprisingly good condition given its age and limited budget.
The default DTS-HD MA 5.1 track offers an impressive but not overwhelming use of directional effects, particularly during the frequent attacks on the station. Dialogue remains clear and free of distortion. Also included is a stereo mix in DTS-HD MA 2.0 that is also pleasing. English subtitles are provided.
Music fans will be happy to note that Carpenter's original music appears on its own track as an isolated score.
John Carpenter's audio commentary originally appeared on the Image Laser Disc and has been ported over to every release since, and that's a good thing because the man knows how to share information. Could the track have benefitted from a moderator? Sure, but this is still a strong session and fans will not want to miss it.
A newly recorded track with Tommy Lee Wallace, expertly moderated by Michael Felsher, dives into the nuts and bolts of the film's creation. Wallace served as production designer, sound effects editor and as is the case with low-budget, performed countless other tasks on the job. Felsher keeps things moving with his usual conversational flow that manages to touch on several relevant topics and prevents the gaps of silence that plague lesser tracks on other titles (looking at you Amityville II).
Bishop Under Siege (8 min) is a new interview with actor Austin Stoker, in which he reflects on his career and how he became attached to this project.
The Sassy One (13 min) offers audiences a chance to catch up with the seldom-interviewed Nancy Loomis. She discusses her time as an actress and what she has been up to since leaving the field.
John Carpenter / Austin Stoker interview (23 min) is a Q&A session recorded in 2002 following a revival screening of the film in California. This is an entertaining addition that first appeared a few years back on the previous “restored edition” DVD release, but is quite nice to have included here.
A collection of promotional photographs are assembled into a stills gallery.
Rounding out the special features are the original trailer and a variety of radio spots.