Following on from the cult appeal of his 1974 sci-fi flick DARK STAR, John Carpenter finally found his feet with this classic from 1976.
It starts off as a multi-stranded story as we follow a group of several seemingly unconnected sub-plots.
First, we have new cop Bishop (Austin Stoker) leaving home one morning for his first day on the job. On his way to reporting for duty, he receives a radio call from his captain asking him to reroute to the titular Los Angeles precinct: that station is due to close down and needs "babysitting" for one last night. Reluctantly, Bishop complies and makes his way towards the all-but deserted police station.
Then there's notorious murderer Napoleon (Darwin Joston). He's being transported between prisons with two more inmates. He's not popular with the screws but he doesn't care - all he wants is a cigarette.
Next we meet young Kathy (Kim Richards) and her nervous father. They're in the middle of an important road trip across town when they need to pull over, which allows for Kathy to make a fateful visit to a nearby ice cream van...
Last but not least, there's the violent gang of thugs who prowl the streets of the neighbourhood this disparate bunch of folk all find themselves in. When one of their clan is shot dead by cops while fleeing the scene of a crime, the remaining gang members want revenge. They set their sights on besieging their local police station, the soon-to-be-defunct Precinct 13...
In the meantime, one of Napoleon's travelling buddies has taken ill and so their police truck has to make an emergency stop at the Precinct. Which means that, come nightfall, the inexperienced Bishop is left with just three convicts, a grieving father, two female employees of the station - the feisty pairing of Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) and Julie (Nancy Loomis) - and a strong sense of morality to help fend off the hordes of gun-toting punks outside.
ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 builds slowly, its first third establishing the backgrounds of its central characters before gradually converging them into the one place. Then, the real drama begins. And once it does, Carpenter rarely lets up on the action. The tension mounts swiftly and is expertly sustained throughout the film's last hour. An early act of unexpected daylight cruelty has already got the audience on edge; Carpenter capitalises on this, keeping us rooted throughout, never quite sure of what he's capable of subjecting us to next.
The characters are, for the most part, a little bland. However, Stoker imbues a warm sense of persuasive decency to his lead, while Joston's amiable killer - a wise-cracking precursor to ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK's Snake Plissken - emerges as the film's true hero. He's a likeable cad, an everyman who manages to be "film star" cool while exhibiting moments of candid warmth whenever his cunning momentarily slips. His scenes with Zimmer are the film's most human moments.
Speaking of Zimmer, she lets the side down a tad with a performance which is a little listless, expressionless. It's not enough to pull you out of the fun though. Carpenter's too smart for that.
The largely cartoonish gangs outside the station, trying to get in and murder everyone inside, do a good job of exuding menace even though their never allowed to develop in terms of character or motivation. They're the bad guys to Stoker's good guy in what Carpenter openly admits is his homage to the Western genre.
An onscreen timeline keeps track of the action as it progresses throughout the day and evening, ensuring a taut pace is maintained. Additional atmosphere is effortlessly achieved through Carpenter's iconic score ... simplistic and repetitive it may be, sounding like me playing on my Bontempi keyboard at age 14, but it's still fucking great.
Violent, fast-paced, tense, and ultimately uplifting - ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 is a pivotal entry in Carpenter's canon, and his first true classic in a career which would later take in HALLOWEEN, THE FOG, THE THING, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK etc.
Second Sight's 40th Anniversary special edition blu-ray is a thing of beauty.
It presents the film uncut and in its original 2.35:1 ratio. This new restoration benefits from full 1080p HD resolution and a healthy bitrate, gracing the film with a transfer that is sharp, detailed, naturally filmic and wonderfully warm in terms of colour. Watching it here, it's hard to believe the film is four decades old.
The English soundtrack is given both DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and PCM dual mono mixes. Both sound natural and intelligently separated. The more spacious former track is impressive, but I am a sucker for original mono mixes. Easily readable optional English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are well-written at all times.
An animated main menu page leads to a pop-up scene selection menu allowing access to the film via 16 chapters.
There is a formidable list of bonus features on offer here too...
First up is Carpenter's audio commentary. Harking back to the shoot in 1975, Carpenter starts by admitting the film is his tribute to Howard Hawks' RIO BRAVO. He speaks highly of the efforts of his cast and crew on this $100,000.00 project, while offering titbits of trivia at an alarming rate. Really, this fluid account is pretty much the last word on the making of this cult classic. Blessed with a great memory for the most part, Carpenter yet again proves himself as one of the most interesting commentators out there.
Art director Tommy Lee Wallace is on hand for his own commentary track, which is moderated by Michael Felsher. Wallace traces his own relationship with Carpenter down to their childhood and has lots to say about their early careers, and how the success of ASSAULT really elevated the latter's career in particular.
"Return to Precinct 13" is an engrossing new 10-minute interview with Stoker, who credits his "domestic servant" mother for giving him the movie bug and goes on to speak fondly of reading Carpenter's script for the first time, which was originally called "Siege". "There was nothing annoying, nothing disappointing, about (the shoot) whatsoever" Stoker smiles, though in hindsight does have reservations about his own performance.
"Filmmaking with John" brings Wallace back for another 21 minutes, in which he starts by describing how he met Carpenter at High School and eventually bonding over a mutual love of music, films and girls. He covers much of the same ground as he does in his commentary track, but it's still fun hearing him describe how the film failed to capture American audiences upon its initial theatrical release; he reveals that the film first found acceptance in the UK.
Producer Joseph Kaufman is allotted 16 minutes to discuss the film's genesis, speaking fluently about how various cast and crew members came on board (including Henry Brandon, who Carpenter was thrilled to work with on account of his love for THE SEARCHERS) and locations that were used.
"Captain Voyeur" is a 7-minute short film from Carpenter's student years. Shot in 1969, the print was discovered on campus in 2011. Restored here in its original academy aspect ratio, this black-and-white endeavour plays out largely without dialogue - just weird sounds and bursts of music on occasion - stars Jerry Cox as a masked man who likes to spy on others. The roving camera shots from behind the mask's eyes definitely feel like a test-run for HALLOWEEN (as the whopping 97-second text intro to this short suggests), while the balance of humour and sinister drama, not to mention a fleeting moment of eye-opening S&M, will hold your attention.
"Do You Remember Laurie Zimmer?" is Charlotte Szlovak's interesting 2003 documentary in which the filmmaker attempts to find out what happened to her old pal following her sudden disappearance from public life some twenty years earlier. At 53 minutes in length, this takes a little while to get going but once it does it's consistently engaging. And lo, there's a happy ending. In French with optional English subtitles.
An archive 23-minute on-stage interview with Carpenter and Stoker stems from a Hollywood screening of the film back in 2002. It looks like VHS quality but is well worth checking out, with Carpenter speaking for the bulk of the time. As you'll no doubt know, the man's a raconteur. He has the audience eating out of his hands the whole time - laughing and whooping in all the right places.
"The Sassy One" is a 13-minute interview with Loomis, who reveals that her own career stretches back to early childhood. She, too, has fond memories of Carpenter and the shoot in general.
The film's original theatrical trailer runs at 2 minutes in length and is an enjoyably scratchy affair.
64 seconds of entertainingly hyperbolic US radio spots follow.
Also provided in this set but unavailable for review purposes are five art cards and a bonus CD containing the iconic original soundtrack.
ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 remains brilliant cinema, one of John Carpenter's finest achievements. Second Sight's blu-ray is the perfect way to revisit it.
Also available on DVD and digital download.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Second Sight|