Isolated and cut off from the city inside a soon-to-be-closed L.A. police station, a group of police officers and convicts must join forces to defend themselves against the gang called Street Thunder, who have taken a blood oath to kill someone trapped inside of the precinct. (From Shout Factory’s official synopsis)
Despite occasional misclassification, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) wasn’t John Carpenter’s first feature film. That distinction would belong to Dark Star (1974), which was an extension of a USC college film Carpenter made with future Alien (1979) screenwriter/Return of the Living Dead (1985) director Dan O’Bannon. Dark Star is a charming, often hilarious little experiment that bears as many, if not more of O’Bannon’s future signatures than Carpenter’s. It established one very important thing, however – that Carpenter could do technically amazing things on a comically minuscule budget. This talent helped bring him to the attention of B-Hollywood, who came calling and led him to make the rough and tumble siege movie, Assault on Precinct 13. With all of this in mind, while Dark Star is the first feature-length movie John Carpenter made, Assault on Precinct 13 would arguably be the first John Carpenter movie.
Though he is usually considered one of the Masters of Horror, a group of young filmmakers that redefined low-budget American horror in the late ‘60s/‘70s (including George Romero, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, and others), but he has always had issues with the distinction, because Carpenter didn’t model his career as much on Alfred Hitchcock or James Whale as non-genre-specific everyman director Howard Hawks. Hawks’ films are unified by two things – their high quality and their genre diversity, including gangster movies (Scarface ), film noir (The Big Sleep ), westerns (Red River ), sci-fi/horror (The Thing From Another World ), and screwball comedies – a subgenre he practically reinvented/redefined in the 1940s. For his part, Carpenter has also dabbled in non-horror films, including a biopic (Elvis ), a romantic, sci-fi adventure (Starman ), and a fantasy kung-fu flick (Big Trouble in Little China ), which is certainly eclectic for a guy mostly known for making scary movies and coauthoring the slasher movement. Carpenter’s most direct tribute to Hawks was his remake The Thing From Another World, The Thing (1982), but Assault on Precinct 13, which was a thematic remake of Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959), often feels like the more affectionate homage.
Rio Bravo was made partially in response to Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), a film that pro-Blacklister John Wayne found it un-American in its anti-Blacklist sentiment. It is, alongside Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), the quintessential siege film. Elements of both films have found their way into everything from Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Cy Endfield’s Zulu (1964). Hawks himself was fond enough of his creation to essentially recreate it two more times – first as El Dorado (1966), then as Rio Lobo (1970), his final feature. The siege concept lends itself to massive scale warfare, like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), but also lends itself to lower budget interpretations, making it popular fodder for action/adventure television (if memory serves, almost every Star Wars show has a Rio Bravo episode, as well as a Seven Samurai episode).
Assault on Precinct 13 began life closer to a remake of Rio Bravo, but budgetary constraints made it difficult to shoot a western in 1976, so Carpenter relocated the story from the Wild West to South Central Los Angeles. It doesn’t exactly improve on Rio Bravo, but Carpenter's awareness of his limitations became a real asset, especially when he was forced to trim the significant fat from Hawks’ overstuffed template. Rio Bravo ends with iconic footage of the heroes defending the Presidio County jail house from bandits, but it takes almost two hours of set up to get there. Carpenter streamlines the 141-minute runtime, whittling it down to an expeditious 91 minutes without losing any of its essential ingredients. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a similar, genre-type movie from the ‘70s with more efficient editing than Assault on Precinct 13. One side effect of the process of consolidating the plot is Carpenter dehumanizes most of the villains. The gangs become mostly emotionless hordes, similar to Romero’s undead flesh-eaters (like zombies, they barely even react when shot) and Hitchcock’s birds. Whether or not this is preferable to 120 minutes of defining the bad guys’ motivations is a matter of taste.
Carpenter hadn’t quite mastered the art of slick, widescreen filmmaking at this time (it took him one more film, 1978’s Halloween, to perfect that type of blocking), but the use of scope, anamorphic framing still adds a whole lot of production value to paltry $150,000 budget. Another thing that Carpenter gets right is a sincere dramatic tone. He avoids the strong, post-Dark Star impulse to treat the material with a flippant sense of humor. A less ambitious filmmaker would’ve recognized that there was little room for real drama in this tight exploitation riff and filled the space with ironic jokes and camp value. At the same time, Assault on Precinct 13 defies the expectations of a Hollywood-made action thriller by embracing exploitation shock value, namely murdering a child in slow motion before the close of its first act in order to set the stakes particularly high.
For this collector’s edition Blu-ray, Shout Factory has recycled Image Entertainment’s restored 1080p disc. This is fine, because that transfer improved greatly on DVD releases, including sharper foreground/close-up textures, better-defined background details, more dynamic contrast levels, and an overall cleaner image. The print has been scrubbed of most of the obvious print damage (there are fluttering artifacts peppered throughout), but not of natural grain. Aside from the occasional distortion created by the anamorphic lenses, edges are hard without shimmering effects or haloes. Without any DNR smudging or over-sharpening issues to complain about, the one thing that catches my eye is the color timing. The daylight sequences appear a bit too warm and yellow, while the teals/light blues of the nighttime sequences are a smidge oversaturated. Browns, flesh tones, and red highlights fair better. The darker shots are slightly muddy, but there are only a couple of shots (during the scene where Laurie Zimmer frees the prisoners from their cells, specifically) where the grain turns particularly noisy and the blacks appear weak or grey.
This 5.1 remix of Assault on Precinct 13 original mono soundtrack was first heard on Image’s DVD release, then appeared again on their aforementioned Blu-ray. Like most 5.1 remixes of mono soundtracks, it is unnecessary, but it’s presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio, so its worth reviewing. Fortunately, this isn’t a particularly aggressive remix. The majority of the non-musical sound is still centered and the added directional value is relatively natural. In fact, aside from the gun bursts (the unsilenced shots are a little over-bassy and the silenced shots are a little over-modulated/digital sounding) and one big explosion, I believe the remix utilizes mostly original effects – there are no Halloween re-release-type canned thunder noises here. The movement between stereo and surround channels is limited and rarely overwhelms the intent of the original sound design. Carpenter’s catchy, moody electronic score sounds especially good in 5.1. The stereo spread is nice and deep and the LFE enhancement is bumps up the dynamic range. The original mono track is also included, alongside a Dolby Digital 2.0 isolated score.
Commentary with director John Carpenter – This solo director’s commentary has been heard on several previous DVD and Blu-ray releases. Carpenter is his usual informative self. He’s characteristically honest and occasionally a bit self-deprecating while he runs through just about every piece of behind-the-scenes information he can remember. His comments remain mostly scene-specific, which can be a little awkward when he runs out of stuff to say about a certain sequence, but helps him flow between the silent bits (of which there are plenty).
Commentary with art director and sound effects editor Tommy Lee Wallace – This Shout exclusive track is moderated by Red Shirt Picture’s Michael Felsher, who interviews Wallace to keep the discussion going. For his part, the soft-spoken Wallace is full of anecdotes and technical tidbits. Subject matter includes Wallace’s history with Carpenter, which began at USC with Dan O’Bannon, along with the difficulty of crafting such a good-looking film on zero budget.
Bishop Under Siege (7:50, HD) – The first of two new interviews featuring actor Austin Stoker discussing his early theater work, his work on Assault on Precinct 13, his ease with firearms/action following time in the army, his fellow actors, and the film’s popularity.
The Sassy One (12:40, HD) – The second new interview features actress Nancy Loomis Kyes, who also talks about her early career, meeting Wallace and Carpenter at USC, getting the job on Assault on Precinct 13, her additional work as a wardrobe mistress and set designer, and her continuing collaboration with Carpenter on Halloween, The Fog (1980, and Halloween III (1982).
Interview with John Carpenter and Austin Stoker (23:10, SD) – This Q&A from a 2002 screening is a hold-over from the older Image releases and features a lot of overlap with the commentary and Stoker’s new interview.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.