Not John Carpenter’s début, but the first in a series of classic horror/action/fantasy B-pictures from him, Assault on Precinct 13 became a hit in Europe, though notably not in the States, and established a solid template to which he has stuck to this day. Its reputation undimmed in spite of a lacklustre 2005 remake, Assault on Precinct 13 is now back on Blu-Ray from re-release specialists Second Sight.
The Film Itself
John Carpenter’s always been refreshingly frank about the sources for his movies, which on the whole are largely recycled; Assault on Precinct 13, which uses the plot of Rio Bravo against the atmosphere of Night of the Living Dead, is no exception. In spite of these borrowings, however, Assault never feels creaky or well-worn. After a long, slow build-up, cross-cutting between the characters that are going to matter later on, something infamous happens at an ice-cream van, and the film kicks into its high-gear, a high-gear which by modern standards isn’t exactly fast-paced, but is often unbearably in its sweaty tension. This was the first of Carpenter’s films that I ever saw, as a youth, and from the ice-cream scene onwards I knew I would always have an abiding love and respect for Carpenter as a filmmaker. So I am, perhaps, biased by nostalgia. But Assault’s tight script, unpretentious performances, and – a given – brilliantly minimalist editing and score, by the director himself, give it a timeless, gritty appeal. Its rating is hampered only slightly by the odd moment of amateurishness, more noticeable on Blu-Ray than ever before (Carpenter himself will nitpick most of these odd moments on the commentary).
Audio and Visuals
Shot for a meagre $100, 000 in 1975, for years Assault on Precinct 13 has rightly looked murky and sounded muffled, which was never a big barrier to its enjoyment at home because hey, it’s a “B”; however, drive-through audiences missed out when some sequences were so minimally lit they had to be cut entirely. Now, on Blu-Ray, for the first time we can see the impressive production design work by Tommy Lee Wallace; we can really listen to the building effect achieved by Carpenter’s score and Wallace’s sound effects work. Now that we’re able to appreciate it, it’s truly heartening to see how diligently this small team worked to make such a low-budget picture seem so big.
The box design is black and unimaginative, certainly not something that will stick out to prospective buyers on store shelves. The menu design is nothing revolutionary, but a red-tinted version of one of the best – and longest – shots in the film captures the requisite mood, with the help of a small clip from the score. Be warned, though: it loops after only thirty seconds or so, which can get tedious if it’s left running.
First of all, Second Sight presents a generous two commentaries. The first is from Carpenter, and will be familiar to those who have listened to any of his previous commentaries: he is very dry, excellent on technical details, and overly critical of his own filmmaking. The second is by his collaborator Tommy Lee Wallace, who is more engaging when it comes to human interest-type stories, such as what happened behind-the-scenes, and so on. Wallace’s track also has an interviewer, and the two of them often banter very pleasurably on matters of genre cinema, and on Carpenter’s later career. However, it does seem like a shame that both couldn’t have appeared on one track together, which might have partly mitigated Carpenter’s famous dryness. There are a series of interviews, also; “Return to Precinct 13: An Interview with Actor Austin Stoker” features the movie’s lead (he played Lt. Bishop) discussing his early life and later career; “Filmmaking with John: An Interview with Tommy Lee Wallace” features Carpenter’s right-hand man on this production talking about his relationship with the director, the challenges of making Assault, and many other topics in the longest and best of the interviews. “Producing Precinct 13: An Interview with Executive Producer Joseph Kaufman” is short, and mostly lightweight. The unimaginatively-titled “Interview with John Carpenter and Austin Stoker” is archived from a 2002 Q&A at a John Carpenter festival. Some of the questions asked are interesting, but given the fan audience, the tone is a little too reverent for much of substance to be discussed, and Stoker is largely overlooked in favour of Carpenter. “The Sassy One with Nancy Loomis” is a nice little interview to round things out. Then there are the short films, this package’s most interesting special feature. “Captain Voyeur” is a long-lost 1969 effort from the film student John Carpenter, and features some of his hallmarks, including masked faces, voyeurism, and extensive use of the first-person perspective. For scholars of Carpenter, these will shine through the student-film obstacles: black-and-white film, minimal sound, hand-written title cards. The other short, “Do You Remember Laurie Zimmer?”, is an artsy documentary by French director Charlotte Szlovak, who directed Zimmer in Slow City, Moving Fast, one of her few credits outside of Assault. The documentary winds up being largely inconsequential, but at the same time it’s a great watch, with a poetry most documentaries lack. After that, there’s your usual assortment of trailers and radio spots finishing off a commendable set of extras.
The essential film from the best genre cinema director of all time, now re-released and better than ever. Everyone should see Assault on Precinct 13, and if you haven’t, here’s the best way of doing so.
Assault on Precinct 13 is now on shop shelves today (from 9th January), will you be buying yourself a copy? Let us know in the comment box below!