Directed by John Carpenter
Distributed by The Scream Factory
At what point do we draw the line for what counts as horror, and what does not?
Imagine with me for a moment: Imagine a poor innocent soul, having just watched a loved one slain in front of them. Imagine them hounded by a horde of faceless antagonists intent on ending them. Imagine them holing up in a small structure with a tiny band of fellow survivors and fighting with all they have to live through the night – even as the group’s numbers dwindle, their attackers press on, and all hope is seemingly lost.
Now tell me – am I talking about George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, or John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13? Both tales are similar in structure and tone, feature death scenes that are terrifying in their own ways, and utterly pulse with dread and tension throughout their running times. And yet, while no one would begrudge Night a spot in our favorite genre, this reviewer should think that most fans would balk at labeling Assault with the beloved “h” word. Horror or not, Assault on Precinct 13 is a seminal film in Carpenter’s impressive catalogue, beginning a decade long golden run of pictures that still holds up all these years later. And now, thirty-seven years after its initial release, Assault is getting a Blu-ray release in a nifty collector’s edition from the good folks at Scream Factory.
Though the plot should be well-known to anyone reading this site, a brief recap: after a group of young LA thugs are unceremoniously gunned down by trigger-happy cops, the departed’s fellow gang members swear a blood oath and begin raining terror down on the city. Meanwhile, young police lieutenant Bishop (Stoker) has just been handed the keys to a soon-to-be-defunct police station (actually Precinct 9, Division 13 – but whatever), just before a vanful of inmates pull up seeking brief sanctuary due to one convict’s illness. In addition to the guards and inmates, the van holds one Napoleon Wilson (Joston), a cool-as-ice killer headed for death row (Carpenter fans will see in Napoleon the DNA which will eventually result in such badass Carpenter antiheroes as Snake Plissken, Jack Burton, and Jack Crow). As night falls, a distraught man races into their station, having just murdered a gang member who had gunned down his daughter earlier that day. The gang surrounds the station, cuts the power and phone lines, then proceeds to lay siege to the building, forcing cops and criminals alike to band together to fight through the night.
And guess what? Assault still works incredibly well as an intense, stylishly directed film full of strong performances and colorful characters. Though this reviewer hadn’t seen the film in quite some time, I was surprised to find that it had aged incredibly well. Though the pacing is a tad slow in the opening third of the movie, Carpenter’s abilities to ratchet up the tension and shock his audience were apparent in even this early effort, to say nothing of the man’s wonderful, synthy musical score. While Assault may not be on par with some of his later efforts, it’s still a minor classic – and a film well worth revisiting time and time again.
Following up their previous Carpenter releases, Scream Factory brings Assault on Precinct 13 to Blu with a typically impressive transfer and audio (time to trade in those old DVDs), as well as a nice package of supplemental material. Included here are two commentaries (one with Carpenter, the other with art director Tommy Lee Wallace), along with an additional track holding Carpenter’s isolated musical score. Next up is a twenty-three minute long interview/Q&A session with Carpenter and Austin Stoker, recorded at the Egyptian Theatre in 2002. Two featurettes focus on Stoker and Nancy Loomis, with each discussing what led them into the business and the making of the film. Topping things off are the film’s original, wonderfully damaged and grindhousey theatrical trailer (”A White-Hot Night of Hate!”), along with two radio spots and a still gallery featuring black-and-white photos and lobby cards. All in all, a solid set.
Folks, if you’re a Carpenter fan, you already know that you need this for your collection. And if you’re a horror fan, well – whether or not you consider Assault a genre flick or not, there’s no denying that it’s an intense, occasionally frightening flick that long ago heralded the coming of an indisputable Master of Horror. And all that aside – it’s just a damn fine film.
It’s nice to know that, all these years later – you’re still pretty fancy, Wilson.
4 out of 5
3 1/2 out of 5