Release Date(s)1976 (November 19, 2013)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
Being a mix of Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead, Assault on Precinct 13 was John Carpenter’s second film and his first to feature many of the things that would become staples of his work, including Panavision widescreen, self-scored and his name above the title. The movie is kind of a hodge-podge of nods and homages to films of the past, but it’s also one of the best B movies ever made.
I might have mentioned this before, but I’m not the biggest John Carpenter fan out there. I’m more fascinated with his work than I am likened to it. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy it, but I do feel a bit of disconnect from it most of the time. I was more surprised by Assault on Precinct 13 than I was any of his work. It seems like a straightforward action movie from the outside, but once you dig in, you realize that it’s not really much of an action movie at all. Well, it is and it isn’t. The action is pretty low-key, and it’s more about people dealing with the situation at hand than the actual violence and bloodshed. There’s only one real scene of gratuitous violence in the movie, but it’s still there for a purpose. I’m, of course, talking about the scene in the beginning of the film when the street punks shoot the little girl by the ice cream truck in cold blood. You rarely if ever see something like that in a movie. Carpenter doesn’t cut away or use quick cutting either. He uses an actual squib on the girl and we watch her fall to the ground. That’s pretty ballsy, but it’s very necessary because it’s the motivation for the plot to get underway.
It’s hard to imagine that John Carpenter made this film after he made Dark Star. That film was a very amateurish and film student-oriented piece of work that wound up being a cult classic despite itself. Assault on Precinct 13 feels like more of a mature work by a mature filmmaker by comparison. The film also shares a lot of visual common ground with The Warriors, which I’m sure is unintentional. Both films could almost be from the same universe. They’re both very downbeat and simple stories about violence in the inner city, and they were also made in the same time period. I’ve always seen them as long lost brothers in a way.
The film is also a modern western, which was every bit intentional by Carpenter who wanted to make it a western in the first place but had to settle because of the limitations of the budget given to him. It’s basically about a small group of people trapped inside a police station and it’s up to a no-nonsense cop and a wayward prisoner to help everyone survive the night. That’s it in a nutshell. It may not be the most complicated of plots, but it’s well-executed and has a lot more staying power than the boring remake of the same name. Also, Carpenter’s score and character dynamics keep the film from losing its audience, even when the performances aren’t that great. And it’s still a film that holds up well.
The film’s debut on Scream Factory Blu-ray features the same transfer as used for the Restored Collector’s Edition Blu-ray release of the film by Image Entertainment. It features a sharp and impressive presentation without being perfect. It has a very healthy grain structure, which is very evident during any daytime scenes. The color palette isn’t overwhelming, but skin tones look very good. Blacks can be deep at times, but unfortunately the contrast and brightness aren’t identical from scene to scene. The same goes for shadow delineation. One scene in particular, the scene wherein Laurie Zimmer’s character is opening the jail cells for the prisoners to get out, was very bright and pixelated, and stuck out more than any other shot in the rest of the film. The film was shot low budget and it shows, but that being said, it’s terrific the amount of image detail that has been squeezed out of the image without excessive usage of DNR, edge enhancement or any other digital no-no’s. It’s a great looking picture, overall. For the soundtrack, you get two options: English 5.1 and 2.0, both DTS-HD tracks. The latter is basically the film’s original mono soundtrack. I’m usually one to go with the film’s original soundtrack, but the 5.1 surround track is actually an improvement over its mono counterpart. They’re basically the same tracks as nothing has been re-mixed, changed or tampered with other than the soundscape. Dialogue is still front-heavy, but the sound effects and score are put to better use in the other speakers. All of the sound still shows its age, but it’s much crisper and less muddled by comparison. And it’s not that the mono track is bad. It’s just that the surround track has more room to breathe, so I’d go with it instead. There are also subtitles in English for those who need them.
The extras have a great little assortment to dig through. Carried over from pretty much all previous releases is an audio commentary with John Carpenter, an isolated score track (a real plus), a Q&A with Carpenter and Austin Stoker, the film’s original theatrical trailer, radio spots and a still gallery. New to this release is another audio commentary with the art director/sound effects designer on the film Tommy Lee Wallace, an interview with Austin Stoker entitled Bishop Under Siege and another interview with Nancy Loomis entitled The Sassy One. So everything from previous Laserdisc, DVD and Blu-ray releases has been ported over plus some new bits. I would have liked to have had an interview with Laurie Zimmer and hear her take on why she quit acting so soon in her career, but alas, it’s her business. It’s nice to hear from Nancy Loomis though, as she’s also a shy one when it comes to interviews.
Assault on Precinct 13 may be a cult film, but it looks more and more to be John Carpenter’s best work, and I include Halloween, The Thing and Escape From New York in that declaration. Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray release reaffirms the film’s status as a classic with more lasting power than any of its imitators. Very much recommended.
- Tim Salmons