AVAILABLE ON DOWNLOAD TO OWN: NOW
AVAILABLE ON DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD, AND DOWNLOAD: 28TH NOVEMBER, from SECOND SIGHT
RUNNING TIME: 91 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Anderson, a crime-infested ghetto in South Central Los Angeles. At 3 a.m. a team of heavily-armed LAPD officers ambush and kill six members of the Street Thunder gang, who have recently stolen a large number of assault rifles and pistols. The gang’s four warlords swear a blood oath of revenge against the the police and the citizens of Los Angeles. Meanwhile, newly promoted Lieutenant Ethan Bishop is assigned to take charge of the decommissioned Anderson police precinct during the last few hours before it is permanently closed, three prisoners being transported to Death Row have to stop at the precinct because one feels sick, and a series of events lead to a man running into the station pursued by some gang members – oh, and the station is only manned by a skeleton crew….
Watching John Carpenter Live a few weeks ago made me realise that we don’t have nearly enough Carpenter movies reviews on HorrorCultFilms, so Second Sight’s new Blu-ray release of Assault On Precinct 13 coming through my letterbox was more than timely. Carpenter’s cult thriller, a kind of melding of Rio Bravo and Night Of The Living Dead, was a film that I hadn’t seen for at least 15 years but which I used to be very fond of. Watching it again with more critical eyes shows that it still holds up and actually seems rather fresh and modern, and, despite it only being his second film, Carpenter already shows a great knack for filmmaking and a love for genre while putting his own stamp on things, as well as using a meagre budget to its very best advantage. Of course being such a very low budget production there are certain acting moments or scenes which don’t come off too well, but I’m actually of the belief that the quick, cheap type of filmmaking can have its advantages and even seem more realistic – after all, people are sometimes awkward or insincere when they talk to other people, and sometimes don’t do things too well. In any case – to use a cliched but kind of appropriate phrase considering its director – this film rocks, despite there not actually being a Precinct 13 in it, the police station actually being Precinct 9, Division 13.
Carpenter was approached by J. Stein Kaplan to write and direct two low-budget exploitation films for $100,000 each but with total creative control. One project was The Eyes Of Laura Mars which Carpenter sold. The other was intended to be a western, but when the budget prohibited it, it became a modern day western variant. It was called The Anderson Alamo uintil eventual distributor Irwin Yablans required the title to be changed. The script was written in eight days and the film itself shot in a month, employing mostly experienced but relatively obscure actors, in Los Angeles. The interiors of the police station were shot on the now-defunct Producers Studios except for the prison cells which were those of the old Venice police station, as were some exterior shots of the film’s precinct. The first scene was shot at the University of Southern California with students playing the gang members. The MPAA refused to give the film an ‘R’ certificate unless the shooting of a young girl was removed, but Carpenter simply handed back to the censors a copy with the offending scene cut out and distributed the film intact. Despite how well known and widely seen most of his movies seem to be, very few of Carpenter’s films were hits upon release and Assault on Precinct 13 was no exception, though it was better received and more popular in the UK and Europe. I suppose I should say that I’ve yet to bother with the 2005 remake, which seems to be generally considered to be reasonable, if pointless.
After the opening bloodbath, a scene which was shot after main shooting had finished to get the film off to a strong start, and which almost looks out of place with its handheld camerawork, Carpenter then skilfully intercuts several linked storylines. There’s the Street Thunder gang taking a blood oath of vengeance on not just cops but seemingly anybody, and being prepared to die in the process. While the screenplay never goes into background detail about this somewhat absurdly mutli-racial street gang, it struck me, as I watched the film last night, how similar to Islamic terrorists this lot are, something which made it more frightening as the gang members ride around in their cars pointing gun at everyone they see. Anyway, we also have Lieutenant Ethan Bishop taking over this almost deserted police station for the night, a trio of murderers being transported, and a guy driving around in his car with his young daughter who’s lost. This last subplot is handled most cunningly, because it seems like the girl, and maybe the dad, could be major characters in the story, but no. She goes to buy an ice cream from an ice cream man who is clearly being set up as a victim, only the gangsters just keep driving past him. He thinks they’re totally gone, but then – in what is a terrific shock moment – one of the gangsters comes out from the left hand side of the screen and beats the guy to a pulp, while another gangster appears to calmly shoot the girl dead. Now it seems to be agreed that it’s not decent to show the killings of kids, old folk and animals onscreen, and certainly not in a way where you can see a bullet actually bloodily rip into a stomach. But not every film has to be decent, and it works so well here because the stakes are now raised and we’re now absolutely terrified of these killers who will slay literally anyone. While not an easy moment to watch, I feel it totally belongs in the picture.
So everyone winds up at the police station where Bishop is initially alone with just two secretaries. First the van of prisoners and their guards turns up, and two are put in cells while the other one is sick. Then the girl’s father flees into there but he suddenly becomes virtually comatose with shock. One of several nice ironies in the story is that nobody ever finds out the cause of the man’s trauma, and we’re even asked whether they should have let him in in the first place considering the amount of danger it puts them in. A hail of bullets suddenly dispatches four people, and the the rest have to set aside their differences, despite often being folk who are on opposite sides of the law, if they’re going to survive the night against a determined enemy which, while happy to crawl in through gaps and climb through windows where they can easily be shot dead, are also very cunning, such as the way they remove all dead bodies and signs of carnage from the front of the station, then hide, so that passing police cars checking out reports or signs of gunfire won’t see anything amiss. The fact that they use silencers makes them scarier too as you never know when a bullet is going to hit somebody. Carpenter doesn’t really succeed in achieving a higher level of excitement towards the finale, and it seems to me that a couple of moments are missing towards the end – possibly moments they didn’t have time to shoot – but this doesn’t significantly weaken the film, and there’s nice little bits of humour here and there, like a sign with the words SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL POLICE used as a barricade.
In fact economy could very well be the best word to describe Assault On Precinct 13, and almost always in a good way. Rather than showing tight, crowded ghettos, we see lots of wide open spaces which are almost deserted, something which helps create an uneasy atmosphere very quickly. Many scenes take place almost entirely in slowly prowling wide shots, cinematographer Douglas Knapp’s work almost as good as Dean Cundey’s at times and Carpenter’s filming style already well in evidence. Characters do talk, but exchanges tend to be short and to the point. One of my favourites is an early exchange when one of the secretaries Laurie offers Bishop some coffee and asks “Black”? “For over 30 years” is the reply, and that’s all you need. The script is also content told leave questions unanswered, especially concerning the enigmatic Prisoner Napoleon Wilson. He saying twice that he’ll only reveal the source of his name “at the point of death” is an obvious reference to Once Upon A Time In The West in a film which is full of western touches, and there’s also a lovely Alfred Hitchcock reference when Bishop tells about his father sending him to a police station when he was six years old with a note, something that Hitchcock often said happened to him during his childhood to interviewers. On the other hand Wilson’s constant asking for “a smoke” just annoys, while the two female characters, split into Howards Hawks-style tough, no-nonsense woman and nervous wreck, don’t fare nearly as well as some of the men.
The acting overall varies in quality, but the amount of scenes which aren’t performed too well is probably partly because there was only time for one or two takes. One thing that is pulled off quite well is the simmering sexual tension between Wilson and secretary Leigh, Darwin Joston and LaurieZimmer very good in these moments, though elsewhere Zimmer is extremely stuff and possible gives the worst performance in the film. Carpenter wrote his distinctive synthesiser score in three days, though it took ages to actually perform because, owing to the primitive technology of the time, all the synthesisers had to be reset whenever another sound had to be created. Despite its extremely simple nature, the score aids the suspense no end and that repeated five note pattern which comprises the main theme always used to ingrain itself in my brain whenever I used to watch the film and it’s still doing so right now. Assault In Precinct 13 is considered by many to be Carpenter’s best, but that’s something I can’t at all agree with. It remains, though, a considerable achievement – raw, vital, and so good at manipulating the viewer – but doing it almost effortlessly.
Second Sight’s Region ‘B’ Blu-ray of Assault On Precinct 13 features a fabulous restoration of the film which, gleaming from what I’ve read, is superior to the one on Shout Factory’s Region ‘A’ release. There are a couple of moments where contrast fluctuates, but remember this was a very cheap movie so it was never going to look pristine all the way through. Much of the film takes place at night and the outdoor nocturnal footage looks amazing with blacks really deep and everything crystal clear.
Second Sight have replicated Shout Factory’s special features and added a few of their own. The commentary from John Carpenter which was originally done for the laserdisc [he even mentions “Side Two” at one point] provides a lot of information, and it’s nice that he’s obviously proud of the film but points out bits where he thinks he could have done better, though he spends too much time describing whats’s happening on screen, and goes on about how he loves old westerns so often that one wonders if the huge success of Halloween sidetracked his career and that maybe he would have been happier making westerns and actioners of a non-science fiction or fantastical bent. Overall it’s a solid commentary but Carpenter is better when with with others. The second commentary has disc producer Michael Felcher with art director Tommy Lee Wallace and in some ways it’s better than Carpenter’s. Felcher knows exactly when to ask questions and which ones to ask, Wallace, who may have been art director but also did lots of other jobs which he later realised weren’t his to do, comes across as a really nice, if very laidback, guy, and there’s very little information/story overlap.The chat about production design and art directions is especially interesting as this kind of thing isn’t covered too often, and Wallace also talks about his career.
The three new interviews are all worthwhile and only overlap a bit of material though Wallace just repeats some of what he said on his commentary. The interview with producer Joseph Kaufman dispells the widely held belief that the film was made for as little as $100,000. After this we have Do Yo Remember Laurie Zimmer?, an odd, nearly hour-long 2003 documentary from France, where filmmaker Charlotte Szlovak goers in search of the actress in Los Angeles, taking in interviews and the occasional publicity stunt. The real nugget for me though was Captain Voyeur, a short Carpenter student film from 1969 which has a lot of affinities with Halloween. It was only discovered in 2011 and is a real treat for Carpenter fans.Finally you get the two interviews from the Region ‘A’ disc, Nancy Loomis being great compnay as she talks of her disappointingly brief career, but the Carpenter and Stoker interview at a screening of the film being hindered by very poor sound. Overall though this is a superb, comprehensive package that rivals the similar work Arrow Video have done on titles like this, and is very highly recommended.
*Newly restored from High Definition 1080p transfer
*DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and Uncompressed PCM original mono audio options
*Return to Precinct 13: A new Interview with Austin Stoker
*Producing Precinct 13: A new interview with Joseph Kaufman
*Filmmaking with John: A new interview with Tommy Lee Wallace
*Captain Voyeur : John Carpenter student short (Blu-ray exclusive)
*Do You Remember Laurie Zimmer documentary film (Blu-ray exclusive)
*Interview with John Carpenter and Austin Stoker
*The Sassy One with Nancy Loomis
*Audio Commentary with John Carpenter
*Audio Commentary with Tommy Lee Wallace
*5 Art Cards (Limited Edition box set exclusive)
*Bonus CD soundtrack disc (Limited Edition box set exclusive)