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Got a smoke?
A review and region 1 / region 2 DVD comparison of John Carpenter's 1976 ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 by Slarek
 
"Why would anybody shoot at a police station?"
Switchboard operator Julie after
the station comes under attack

 


It's a lie, of course, that title – every fan of the early films of John Carpenter knows that. The assault in question is not launched against Precinct 13, but Precinct 9, Division 13. But then this wasn't John Carpenter's original title – the script, written under the same pseudonym Carpenter used as editor on the final film, was titled 'The Anderson Alamo'. It doesn't matter, not one jot. Where this happens is of little importance, but what happens and who it happens to most certainly is. That it's downtown Los Angeles is not even an issue – Carpenter is not making a political statement, he is making an urban Western. And it's a divine and beautiful thing. So in this time of Hollywood creative vacuity, it's somewhat inevitable that some witless bastard would decide to remake it and change the plot and characters just enough to make you wonder why they didn't just break with the original and make their own damned movie. After all, Carpenter's version is essentially an updating of two earlier classics, but one of the triumphs of his film is that despite being ten percent Rio Bravo and ten percent Night of the Living Dead, it's still eighty percent pure, undiluted Carpenter at his most deliciously, seductively creative.

My relationship with this film goes back a long way, right back to film school in the late 1970s. Dark Star was shown on TV over Christmas, but I missed it because I was at the third night of Star Wars. I'd heard about Assault and was utterly intrigued. In the time of the dark cynicism of Taxi Driver and the political edge of Blue Collar, here was a film that critics were calling 'old fashioned' and not intending it as as put-down, the sort of work about which people were fond of saying, "They don't make 'em like that any more," but one tinged with a very modern approach to its violence. I first laid eyes on it at The Sherlock Holmes Centre in London, the smallest cinema I have ever been in, but by the end I couldn't have cared if I had seen it on one of those little communication watches from Thunderbirds – I was utterly, completely bowled over. I ended up seeing the film over thirty times at the cinema and writing my film school dissertation on the first four films (three cinema, one TV) from a director I believed had a glorious future ahead of him. Of course, every horror fan now knows the name of John Carpenter and, like Clive Barker, he remains a lucid and persuasive ambassador for the genre. He may have fallen flat on his face a few times with the likes of Village of the Damned and Ghosts of Mars, but he still has much to be proud of: Halloween, The Fog, The Thing and They Live are all dynamite movies. But despite all that has come since, my favourite John Carpenter film – for a whole host of reasons – remains Assault on Precinct 13.

The plot begins as a number of seemingly disparate sub-stories unfold, all of which are destined to collide through a single random act of violence: a large consignment of weapons is hijacked by a multi-cultural youth gang known as Street Thunder; young Kathy is being driven across town by her father in an effort to persuade her ageing grandmother to move out of the ghetto and live with them; world-weary Detective Starker has landed the job of transporting three prisoners to Death Row, including notorious killer Napoleon Wilson; an ice-cream man is touring the neighbourhood and selling his wares; and on his first day in his new job, freshly promoted lieutenant Ethan Bishop is sent to babysit a remote police station that is in the final stages of being moved to a new location. When one of Starker's prisoners is taken ill, the prison bus is forced to stop at the very police station Bishop has just taken temporary charge of, and the prisoners are placed in the holding cells while Starker unsuccessfully attempts to call his superiors. Meanwhile, the four warlords of Street Thunder swear a blood oath and, armed to the teeth, cruise the neighbourhood looking for someone to kill. Drawn to the jingle of the ice cream truck, they initially threaten its driver, then coldly murder Kathy when she innocently returns to the van to query her purchase. Mortified and insane with grief and rage, her father chases the gang and guns down the warlord who killed his daughter, then finds himself pursued by an ever-growing army of gang members. He takes refuge in Bishop's police station, by when he is in an uncommunicative state of shock, and the occupants find themselves under siege from the suicidally determined street gang.

When the opportunity to make his second film arose, Carpenter was approached by backers with a tiny budget ($100,000) and given complete freedom over his choice of project. He wanted dearly to make a western, but with the popularity of the genre in nose-dive he elected to take the themes and characters of the genre and update them to an urban gang setting. (Interestingly, Katherine Bigelow was faced with the same dilemma a few years later and turned her would-be western into the vampire movie Near Dark.) Such genre twisting can easily fall on its face, but Carpenter makes it work divinely; by keeping his characters and story development just one step away from reality, he clues us in on to how to read the film from its earliest stages. The multi-racial mix of the gang, their almost complete lack of vocal communication and the cold viciousness of their first kill all serve a specific purpose, to mark them as the bad guys and give the audience little opportunity to identify with them on a personal, cultural or social level – these people are a collective killing machine, and if they can kill that little girl without even a flicker of reaction, then they can do anything. This is binary opposition at work: there are good guys and there are bad guys, and whatever their flaws may be, you always root for the good guys. This separational approach is especially important given that one of the good guys is actually a mass murderer, an aspect of his character that is neatly side-stepped by making him witty, cynical and hugely likeable, while his back story and motivation are effectively shrugged off in a brief dialogue exchange with Starker on the prison bus. He is also presented not as an aggressor but a rebellious victim. His iconic introduction – a rapid track/zoom to close-up – has him chained in a cell, and while his captors are either physically abusive or reading the rule book, Wilson makes a dry quip out of just about everything. In the yard outside, when he trips the warden up and delivers the second half of an amusing two-part verbal gag, I had to fight the urge to cheer, and I'd known him at this point for barely five minutes.

Street Thunder, on the other hand, are presented from the off as a truly malevolent force. Carpenter's ace-in-the-hole here is actor Frank Doubleday, who despite having not a word of dialogue makes for a genuinely frightening gang Warlord (Doubleday memorably told Carpenter that he did not want to play the character as a man who has a gun, but a man who IS a gun). The scene in which he terrorises the ice cream vendor by calmly inserting a silenced gun into his mouth had me cringing with terror on my first viewing and his almost indifferent shooting of Kathy hits you like a bolt of lightning, in part because it breaks the unspoken rule – in American movies at least – that children can be menaced but should never killed. It's made all the more disturbing by the news that Carpenter drew the incident from real life: a street gang were hanging around a bus stop and one of them said to the others: "I'm going to shoot the next person that gets off that bus"; a young girl got off and he shot her and drove away. It's an idea that really scared the young Carpenter, to be walking down the road and be suddenly killed for no reason. The power and daring of the scene could be measured on its initial release by the occasional walkouts I witnessed at this point in the film and in Carpenter's own conviction that he would never be allowed to stage this sequence today. Its importance in narrative terms is paramount: it catapults the father into action and ultimately into the station where most of the film's action will take place, but its gravity renders him unable to communicate with his helpers, leaving them in the dark over just why the building has come under attack. It also tells us everything we need to know about the gang – they are ruthless, dangerous, and very, very bad.

Having introduced us to and aligned us with his main characters, Carpenter then keeps them enclosed in the police station for the remainder of the film, trapping us with them and creating an atmosphere of increasing claustrophobia that can now be seen as almost a dry run for The Thing. Remarkably, there is no dramatic shift in tone once we are inside the station – the balance between character detail, tension and humour remains throughout and gives rise to some extraordinary sequences that have you biting your nails one second and laughing out loud the next. A prime example of this comes during the initial attack on the station, a semi-surrealistic scene in which glass, wood and paper explode as bullets rain in from a barrage of silenced weapons, which concludes with two small pops that send sheets of paper comically airborne like the contents of an indoor firework. It's an approach that keeps us engaged with the characters and repeatedly throws us off guard, with even the best moments of character humour underpinned by the situational tension. This reaches a peak when one of the group needs to be selected to sneak out and hot-wire a nearby car – the sight of two hardened criminals playing 'potatoes' to see who goes and who stays is as bizarre an image for us as it is for their companions, while the comedic banter that follows never dilutes the very real fear you feel for the selected unfortunate.

As their resources dwindle and their situation becomes desperate, Carpenter's grip as a thriller director tightens all the more, and despite the narrative inevitability of the finale it still manages to be seat-clenchingly tense. Here the film stays true to its western roots, and though Leigh emerges with strength and dignity, the finale ultimately belongs to the men. Seemingly opposites in the world of law and order, they are united by circumstance and a common purpose that has given them deep respect for each other – Bishop's angry "Get AWAY from him!" to the cop who attempts to re-shackle Wilson never fails to bring a lump to my throat.

Although the western influence is key to the film's unique style and feel, it is the work of Howard Hawks, one of Carpenter's favourite directors, that is most keenly felt. The plot itself is a reworking of Hawks' 1959 Rio Bravo, in which a rag-tag group consisting of a drunken sheriff, a seasoned gunfighter, a young greenhorn and a spirited saloon girl hold up in a jail that is besieged by outlaws attempting to free their imprisoned boss (the recent remake of Assault borrows more precisely from this formula, which Hawks himself re-used in El Dorado and Rio Lobo). Carpenter has never pretended otherwise, of course, signaling the connection with his editor credit as John T. Chance, the character played by John Wayne in Hawks' original, and by naming the female lead after that film's co-screenwriter, Leigh Brackett. But an equal, more modern influence was clearly George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, which featured a small group holding siege in a house against an army of attacking zombies (here represented by the largely faceless and voiceless members of Street Thunder), a young and resourcesful black leading man and a final stand-off in the building's basement. But if Street Thunder and Bishop are drawn from Romero, then their companions are from Hawks and other Carpenter favourite Sergio Leone, with Leigh every inch as tough and cool as Angie Dickenson's Feathers in Rio Bravo ("You did good," Wilson tells her in true Hawksian fashion) and Wilson as impenetrable and unemotional as Charles Bronson's Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West, a character who, like Wilson, also promises to reveal key information about himself only at the point of death. Rio Bravo (as well as Hawks' Red River) can also be felt strongly in one of Assault's most electrifying moments, where a shotgun is thrown and fired in the nick of time, and in the discovery of a body through the dripping of their blood from aloft. Carpenter completes the favourite director quadrilogy with a low key nod to Hitchcock – the story Bishop tells Leigh about his boyhood trip to the police station is Hitchcock's own.

Despite his young age and helming only his second feature, Carpenter's confidence is writ large over every scene, from the technical handling to his work with the actors. Darwin Joston – an underused and now sadly missed actor (he died of leukaemia in 1998) whose other key claim to fame, apart from his cameo in Carpenter's The Fog, is his small role as the button-pushing Paul in David Lynch's Eraserhead – creates in Napoleon Wilson a hugely enjoyable anti-hero. His laid-back growl is perfectly balanced by Austin Stoker's energetically resourceful Bishop, whose youthful enthusiasm and his wide-eyed disbelief at what is going down eventually gives way to anger and excitable determination. As Leigh, Laurie Zimmer (who appeared in only three features before later becoming the subject of the 2003 French short film Do You Remember Laurie Zimmer?) is both alluring and as tough as nails, the perfect match in every way for Wilson, a Bacall and Bogart for 1970s urban Los Angeles. Completing the group is Tony Burton (later to feature as Apollo Creed's trainer in the Rocky films) as Wilson's agitated and determinedly self-protective bus-mate Wells, the inevitable weak link who discovers bravery and self-sacrifice, but at a cost. Also making an impression as Starker and frightened receptionist Julie are Charles Cyphers and Nancy Loomis, both of whom landed more substantial roles in Halloween and The Fog, and it's worth noting that Carpenter cast Henry Brandon as world weary desk sergeant Chaney in part because he played the warrior Scar in John Ford's seminal The Searchers.

Carpenter's camera placement is consistently impressive, as is Dark Star cinematographer Douglas Knapp's moody night lighting and use of the scope frame. He repeatedly creates eye-catching shots that also have clear narrative purpose: the Street Thunder car window that slowly rolls down to reveal the barrel of an assault rifle and a huge silencer conveys an extraordinary sense of the threat the gang represent in a single image; the father seemingly trapped and isolated in a phone booth as the gang car passes malevolently in the other side of the frame; the poster shot of the hesitant Wells emerging from the manhole as his companions look nervously on; the scurrying figures that surround the station, the screen width serving to exaggerate their numbers; the smoke that clears to reveal three figures desperately brandishing improvised weapons... the list goes on. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that this was his first experience with scope, Carpenter all but ignores the once widely held view that you cannot cut scope at the same pace as regular widescreen or Academy ratios – indeed, the film was featured in a BBC Moving Pictures article on the cinemascope ratio as an example of a film that had finally broken this rule, though in order to do so the programme makers conveniently ignored Lou Lombardo's lightning editing work on Peckinpah's 1969 The Wild Bunch.

The final piece in the jigsaw is Carpenter's own, brilliantly simple and effective score, a seductive blend of rhythmic clacking and deep bass synthesiser that I still find myself humming when driving through town (maybe that's not such a good thing, given what it represents). Carpenter repeatedly links the main theme to Street Thunder, sometimes announcing their arrival in frame and departure from it, particularly effective when the car is circling the ice-cream van like a hungry black shark – when it disappears over a hill and the music fades with it, we are given momentary (and deceptive) reassurance that the vendor and his young customer are safe from its bite. The music has remained an iconic component of the film's effectiveness and identity and in 1988 found a new audience when it was turned into the top ten single Megablast by Bomb the Base, which in turn became the soundtrack for the Bitmap Brothers' hit Amiga game Xenon II. This recycling seems only appropriate given that this very same main theme was itself inspired by a combination of Led Zeppelin's The Immigrant Song and Lalo Schifrin's score for Dirty Harry.

My first experience of the film was a revelatory one and countless viewings later I still warm to the humour and characters and admire the hell out of the way it tells its story and the sheer skill with which it is assembled. And all these years and viewings further down the line only one thing in the whole film continues to bug me. After Wells has made his attempted departure through the sewer hatch, Leigh asks Wilson why he didn't take off down the sewer in the other direction. As a character moment this works well, as it gives Wilson the chance to display an inner nobility and let his developing feelings for Leigh flicker to the surface (though it is to Carpenter's credit that this is as near as they come to actually admitting what they feel for each other), but I remain to this day bothered by just one thing: the sewer had another exit? Then why the hell did Wells risk life and limb crawling out of a manhole and exposing himself to the wrath of the gang when he could have skipped unseen in the other direction and emerged from a manhole cover that did not have fifty guns pointed at it? Ah, who cares. It was a bloody marvelous film back in the late 1970s and its still a marvelous film now. Assault on Precinct 13 manages the rare trick of effectively borrowing from two classic films without ever feeling like a direct remake, and time has ensured that it has, like its noble predecessors, achieved classic status of its own.

Surprisingly, the film failed to make an impression on its initial American release, but following a triumphant screening at the London Film Festival (where it received a standing ovation), it found considerable favour in Europe and especially the UK, and its success here eventually spread back to the US. Carpenter had originally attracted the attention of the Assault investors through the sale of his script Eyes, which eventually became The Eyes of Laura Mars, a film he was originally slated to direct until a falling out with the producers over key elements of the content. The story revolved around a female photographer who begins to experience visions in which she sees through the eyes of a murderer in the act of killing – Carpenter believed that the killer should remain an anonymous threat that would slowly close in on her, but the producers insisted that he should be someone the woman knew personally, perhaps even loved, so that there would also be an emotional battle to fight. Unable to resolve this issues to his satisfaction, he took the then bold decision (this could have been his big breakthrough film, after all) and walked. He was able to realise his vision of a resourcesful woman stalked by an anonymous killer (and pay homage to Hitchcock) in his compelling and too-little-seen 1978 TV movie Someone's Watching Me, but it was his made-for-cinema twist on the tale made later the same year – a little film called Halloween – that really put him on the map. He followed this with Elvis: The Movie, which on its first screening became the most watched TV movie of all time. The rest, as they say, is history.

sound and vision

What was the first DVD you bought? Seems a long time ago now, doesn't it? Mine was Image Entertainment's original region 0 DVD of Assault on Precinct 13. At the time, it was a most exciting purchase – after years of crappy quality, painfully cropped TV screenings and VHS releases, here was one of my favourite films back in its original aspect ratio and looking better than I ever believed it could on a home video format. Of course, once I had a big widescreen TV and a few hundred other releases to compare it to I was more aware of the definition issues of non-anamorphic NTSC, though given those restrictions I still felt this was a most reasonable transfer. Last year Image re-released the film as a special edition with a couple more extras and an anamorphic transfer, and it made a real difference. Despite a few noticeable compression artefacts on dimly lit areas of a similar colour (station walls, in the main) and a few dust spots, this is a very nice transfer, with sharpness, contrast and colour all of a high order, and even the darker scenes in the besieged station clearly reproduced.

Contender's region 2 release also replaces an earlier version, this time from Universal, a travesty of a disc that saw Douglas Knapp's careful compositions cropped to 1.78:1 and given only an average transfer even then. Contender's disk certainly puts things right on the picture front. Like the Image release, the transfer is very impressive, with detail, colour and contrast very pleasing, though it shares the occasional compression artefacts in some scenes (check the walls in the scene in which we are introduced to Napoleon Wilson or when Bishop shares a coffee with Leigh). The infrequent though visible dust spots on the Image disk appear not to be present here, and the extra resolution offered by PAL over NTSC does occasionally make itself effectively felt. In this respect I'd have to say that the Contender disk has a slight edge.

The sound is the original mono on both disks, but is very clear and clean in both instances, the bass notes of Carpenter's music really coming across well. As someone who knows the film inside out and has listened to the soundtrack CD a good few times, the frame-a-second PAL speedup does notice, and I thus prefer the region 1 disk, which also has an isolated music track for Carpenter soundtrack fans.

extra features

Here is where the two disks really part company, and where I have to once again take issue with the utterly misleading use of the term 'special edition'. The Contender region 2 release does indeed put right a previous wrong in presenting the film in its original aspect ratio for the first time on region 2, but given that the vast majority of DVD releases since the medium first found popularity have the films in their correct aspect ratio, to give the DVD a 'Special Widescreen Edition' label is frankly taking the piss, especially given the almost complete lack of extras on the disc itself (do not be misled by the current listing on Amazon, which promises all of the features found on the Image disk). Indeed, the only worthwhile extra of note is a booklet detailing the background to the film, with information on the director and some of the actors.

On the disc itself there are only two extra features. Gallery consists of just 10, iffy quality stills and one re-release poster (which is also in the booklet), all about half screen size. The Trailer (1:56) is anamorphic 16:9 and in not bad shape, at least when compared to the one on the Image disc (see below). Some of the footage is desaturated to the level that it is almost black and white, but this appears to have been deliberate.

Though the Image region 1 disk is also a case of upgrading rather than reinventing, it does at least stand on its own merits as a Special Edition.

The key extra, and the best reason for choosing the Image release over the Contender one, is the Commentary by director John Carpenter, which was on the first release and ported over from the original laserdisk. A typically fascinating and informative track, it covers everything from the influences that shaped specific scenes to the use of various locations (Bishop's arrival at the station is particularly illuminating, utilising as it does four separate locations and a sound stage), the involvement of crew members and friends in minor roles, and the technical aspects of shooting and editing, including the fact that Carpenter's editing duties on two scenes were shared with art director Tommy Lee Wallace and assistant director James Nicols. Having had to research for almost six months and end up with a bibliography that was spread over three pages for my thesis back in 1980, it was somewhat disconcerting to hear much of that legwork covered in this one commentary, but for those who have not read any of the many, many articles that have been written since on Carpenter and this film, this is a first rate introduction. The surprising element is how often Carpenter says he would speed up the film if he were making it today, something I'm guessing that precious few of the film's fans would agree with him on, though he does counter this at one point by admitting that the film actually benefits from not assaulting the audience with action.

New to this edition is an Interview with John Carpenter and Actor Austin Stoker (23:06), recorded in 2002 at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood as part of a retrospective screening of the director's works taking place over several days. Shot on DV in one take and with the sound recorded using the on-camera mic, resulting in occasional but inevitable clarity issues with the acoustics of the room, this is nevertheless a hugely enjoyable inclusion, in the main because Carpenter himself is so entertaining, taking a light-hearted and anecdotal approach to the questioning that is constantly engaging. The audience appears to be made up almost exclusively of fans of the film and the director, but as someone who would happily sit amongst them I have no issue with this. There is also a nice variety to the questions, my favourite being the man who asks a laughing Carpenter, "How exactly do you win at potatoes?"

Production Gallery (16:55) is a substantial rolling collection of behind-the-scenes stills, extracts from Carpenter's original script and even some of his delightfully simple storyboards, all set to music from the film. Framed at very close to 4:3, the pictures, pleasingly, make full use of that available screen space.

Isolated Score does what it says on the tin and good news for those who do not have the soundtrack on CD (or MP3).

The Theatrical Trailer (2:03) is the same one as on the original Image release, just blown up to 16:9 anamorphic, making it virtually identical to the one on the Contender disk. There is, however, one, crucial difference: the one here is in a right state, a blizzard of print damage and flickering that at least improves as it progresses.

Two Radio Spots (0:32 and 0:33) are exactly that, but are set to poster artwork from the film, one per spot.

summary

Assault on Precinct 13 will always have a special place in my heart, for its huge entertainment value, for Carpenter's boldness in making an updated Hawksian western in a time of forward-looking and often dark sociopolitical thrillers, for the still shocking shooting that kicks off the main plot, for its wonderfully sketched characters, for its precision-timed mix of humour and tension.... I could go on. My relationship with the film was an intimate one – in a time before the pause-and-freeze-frame convenience of VHS, I spent many, many afternoons and evenings in cinemas watching and rewatching the film, notebook in hand, attempting to memorise every shot and line of dialogue and note of music for a thesis that was delivered just three months before Cinefantastique did a Carpenter special that would have effectively rendered months of research almost invalid. It's thus impossible for me to be even remotely objective about the film, but then are we ever about any work of art? I'm not alone here – there are plenty out there for whom Assault on Precinct 13 is far more than just a well done exploitation thriller, as evidenced in an article a few years back in, I believe, the departed Neon magazine, which included the film in a list of their ten favourite westerns of all time. Piss on the opportunistically minded remake – the original is terrific cinema and fabulous entertainment, and will continue to be held in high regard long after everyone has forgotten that there even was another version.

If it's just the film you're interested in then the Contender region 2 disk will do fine, as despite the lack of extras the transfer is first rate, showcasing Knapp's photography to the max and belying the film's low budget origins. But fans of the film should head straight for Image Entertainment's region 1 disk – this also sports a fine transfer, but in addition has an excellent commentary track and the Q&A with Carpenter and Austin Stoker to recommend it, not to mention a gallery that completely shames the token inclusion on the Contender disk.

Assault on Precinct 13

USA 1976.
91 mins
director
John Carpenter
starring
Austin Stoker
Darwin Joston
Laurie Zimmer
Martin West
Tony Burton
Charles Cyphers
Nancy Loomis

DVD details
region 1
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
Director's commentary
Q&A with John Carpenter and Austin Stoker
Production gallery
Radio Spots
Isolated music track
distributor
Image Entertainment

region 2 .
video.
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound.
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages .
English
subtitles .
none
extras
Comemorative booklet
Trailer
Gallery
distributor .
Contender
review posted
27 January 2005

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