While Dark Star is technically John Carpenter’s first film, Assault on Precinct 13 is his first solo directing gig and the first to really feel like a Carpenter film. The glorious widescreen, the confined space, the dark humor, the blue-collar badass – all of the elements he’ll frequently revisit are there. Not to mention how incredibly assured the entire film is. With Precinct 13, Carpenter skipped the amateur phase of filmmaking and stepped right into the “master” class. While it may not be as synonymous with Carpenter as Halloween or The Thing, this low-budget love letter to Hawks’ Rio Bravo and Romero’s Night of the Living Dead stands as one of his best (and personally, one of my favorite films of all time, so pardon me if I gush a bit over this Blu-ray).
If ya don’t know: After a police ambush leaves several members dead, gangs form an alliance and embark on a random murder raid. In what is arguably Carpenter’s most shocking moment, the gang guns down a little girl (pigtails and all) and then pursues her father who seeks refuge in a decommissioned police station. Inside, officer Bishop (Austin Stoker) must begrudgingly forge an alliance with a convicted murderer (Darwin Joston) in order to defend the station against the savage horde of gang members.
Where the Romero influence comes in is with the seemingly supernatural gang members who mimic zombies. Zombies with guns, of course. They never speak, they lumber about silently and even utilize silencers (dig the massive silencer on homeboy’s rifle). Their corpses seem to disappear and they’re fond of piling in through windows and doors. And, like so many zombies in so many zombie movies, they’re sole purpose is to be relentlessly mowed down. (Total body count: 59).
Where the Howard Hawks influence comes in is with the plot elements and the sense of fraternity under fire. Laurie Zimmer is a nice stand-in for Angie Dickinson’s Feathers character from Rio Bravo and Nancy Kyes (then under the name Nancy Loomis) delivers a perfectly skittish performance. Bishop’s unabating positivity is contrasted nicely with Napoleon’s grim honesty. Ya wanna side with Bishop as he smiles and reassures everyone that they’ll survive the night, but Napoleon is there to ground us.
The brassily named Napoleon Wilson, played by Darwin Joston (R.I.P), is the blueprint for the blue-collar badasses Carpenter would so often utilize (R.J. MacReady, Nada, Jack Burton). He lacks the charisma and good looks of Kurt Russell, but Napoleon is an obvious pre-cursor for Snake Plissken. His lack of charm is what makes him so damn interesting to watch. Darwin has an undeniably old-Hollywood look to him – like he was plucked out of the 1950s and thrown into modernity against his will. His laconic swagger masks a pain though. His history is a mystery, but ya know the guy has been through some shit.
I could talk forever about Precinct 13, but this is supposed to be about the Blu-ray so let’s play “save ass” and get on with it.
The video appears to be the same HD transfer from the 2008 Blu-ray. Precinct 13 is a very, very dark film. Cinematographer Douglass Knapp (Escape From New York) utilized natural lighting, and since the action goes down at night, that had to be a bitch. The 1080p HD transfer grabs much of the detail and contrast during these night scenes. The daytime scenes get a serious boost too. The bloody vanilla swirl never looked so vivid.
The 5.1 soundtrack is pretty front-heavy, so I found myself enjoying the original mono track better.
The audio commentary with John Carpenter is carried over from the previous releases (dating back to the laserdisc!). As usual, he spends a lot of time narrating the film, but once in a while he details the production history. There’s also a 20 minute interview from 2002 with Carpenter and Austin Stoker. Carpenter’s more informative there than in the commentary.
Thankfully, Scream Factory put together brand new commentary by the art director/sound effects editor Tommy Lee Wallace. This is a really great track. Wallace is loose and relaxed as he details much of the production and his career. One cool thing I learned from it is that he borrowed a lot of gunshot/ricochet sound effects from the library of Ben Burtt, who later made a name for himself as the sound guy of Star Wars. He also talks about the nightmare that was reshooting The Fog.
The new interviews with Austin Stoker and Nancy Kyes are pretty good. Both nicely reminisce about the film and Kyes also talks about her other work in Carpenter films (Halloween, The Fog).
Overall it’s a terrific release and well worth buying even if you have the previous Blu-ray. Save your old copies for the first two assholes who come through that vent.