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ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer
Director: John Carpenter
Audio: English Dolby Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Image Entertainment
Features: See Review
Length: 91 Minutes
Release Date: March 11, 2003

"There are no heroes anymore, Bishop. Just men who follow orders."

Film ***1/2

If there was any indication of just how good a director John Carpenter was, Assault on Precinct 13 was a darn good sign. It was the director's second outing as a director, following his first try, Dark Star, and the film that would be followed by his landmark breakthrough, Halloween, in 1978. Being a longtime fan of Mr. Carpenter's, and having seen nearly all of his work, Assault on Precinct 13 is one I have just now been able to experience. Desperate to see it after reading endless critical praise, I couldn't seem to locate the movie at any local video store, probably because its original DVD release had been discontinued. I even managed to miss its repeat viewings on the Independent Film Channel, where it was even presented in letterbox. Now, Image has courageously re-released what I now consider to be one of Carpenter's best films.

There are several genres of film that Mr. Carpenter has perfected, one being horror, another being sci-fi, and the other being action thriller, and Assault on Precinct 13 not only makes for a creepy and effective thriller, but for a low budget film, which for 1976 made it very, very low, it delivers a strong impact that most big budget films seem to lack. About 85% of the film takes place at night, and mostly at one setting. Given these advantages, Carpenter succeeds at letting the atmosphere become a character itself in this tale of a deadly war declared by a street gang in the name of cold-blooded vengeance.

The story opens with a police squad opening fire on several members of a notorious street gang known as The Street Thunder. The very next day, the four ringleaders of the gang take a blood oath and unite to bring the city of Los Angeles down to its knees. Another creepy aspect is that the gang members aren't given any dialogue, but it isn't needed. The very look of rage and terror is displayed in their faces. Street Thunder is made to be more a deadly force than a group of individuals, making it even more terrifying. I feel as though to give away any details of their actions would be unfair, but I can implicate one such incident will unquestionably shock anyone who watches this movie.

As day turns into night, the trail of the gang leads to Precinct 13, whose occupants include just that of a watch commander, his assistants, and a couple of prisoner transfers scheduled for death row. When it is discovered that the precinct is indeed under attack, with the gang circling its every exit, it's up to Lt. Bishop (Austin Stoker) to make a critical decision, which is using the two inmates, Wilson (Darwin Joston) and Wells (Tony Burton) as allies to strike back against the gang, whose number is in a superior high quantity.

Blending in elements of Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead, Assault on Precinct 13 is nothing short of an audacious, landmark independent film. Carpenter, who also provides the film's remarkably creepy score, masters here both the art of pacing and execution, which he has since become somewhat famous for in some of his other films. Those who have seen his last movie, Ghosts of Mars, will no doubt recognize a similarity in both plot and build up. Alongside all of the chaos in the film, Carpenter also manages to squeeze in some character development amongst the hostages of precinct 13.

Having deservedly earned the status of a cult classic, Assault on Precinct 13 is a definitive John Carpenter thriller. Brutal, relentless and uncompromising like the Street Thunder gang, it is nothing short of a perfect first step for one of today's masters of cinematic terror.

In closing of this review, I wanted to pose a question to Image Entertainment. Will there be any possibility of a re-release for Carpenter's Prince of Darkness or They Live?

Video ***1/2

Judging by how thoroughly impressed I was by the transfer of this 27 year old release, I can conclude that the folks at Image took their time in making sure this presentation was perfected in every aspect. The anamorphic picture is endlessly crisp and rendered right, making it one of the grandest looking films from the 70s I've ever seen on DVD. For a film that is endless in its dark settings, the quality turns out to be impressive even in that aspect. An instance or two of picture softness appear briefly, but they are so brief they are barely worth quibbling about.

Audio ***

How's this for incredibly shocking? Never before have I heard a mono track that sounded so much like anything BUT a mono track, as the mix for Assault on Precinct 13 marks a rarity in all my time reviewing discs. Carpenter's haunting score to the film, which is the first thing heard before the credits even appear, is one of the high points of the discs, as it practically jumps up the chill factor. Even the dated sound effects work in the film, such as gunfire, etc., sound a lot better than you would think. Image should really congratulate themselves for delivering one of the year's most pleasant surprises.

Features ***

Image gave this re-release a much needed boost in the extras department (the original disc reportedly contained zilch). Included is an intriguing interview with John Carpenter and star Austin Stoker that is loaded with insightful questioning and occasional humor. Also featured is a commentary track by Carpenter, which, like all his commentaries, a very good listen. Rounding out the extras are an isolated music track, a stills gallery, a trailer and radio spots.

Summary:

Assault on Precinct 13 is perfectly displayed beginning of John Carpenter's terrific track record, thoughtfully re-released in a glorious presentation by Image.