Despite a slightly bigger budget, John Carpenter’s second feature, Assault on Precinct 13, looks as if it were made with fewer resources than his first, Dark Star, a science-fiction film made for so little money its alien was played by a beach ball. The film seems to exist in a vacuum, its ascetic frames matched by a pared-down narrative that scarcely lets anyone take a breath out of place. Shooting for the first time in the Panavision aspect ratio that would become his calling card, Carpenter even manages to make the small patch of desolate urban decay he found in 1975 Los Angles for the film feel representative of the whole, the increase in horizontal space suggesting that the dilapidation stretches across the entire city. Indebted to Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead, Carpenter’s spare compositions and his use of absence as the key signifier of evil’s presence aligns the film most closely with the work of Jacques Tourneur.
The setup takes the concise genre distillation of Rio Bravo and drains it further: A group of police officers, precinct staffers, and prisoners find themselves besieged at a closing police station by a local gang that, in the classic Carpenter tradition of personified evil, avoids any clear interpretation. Never voicing a cause that unites its members along socioeconomic grievances, the multiracial gang sidesteps any reductive cultural identity, and the urban decay of their territory seems to be the result of their restlessness rather than the cause of it. Eventually, the gang members effectively become one with the neighborhood they’ve wrought, disappearing into the darkness as they open fire from off screen. Occasionally, Carpenter shows a wave of zombified members approaching, but by and large they’re “seen” only by the effects of their rampage, the bullet holes left in people and walls, and heard in the dull thumps of their silenced gunfire. They represent Carpenter’s first experiment with an unfathomable, insoluble terror, and his clever portrayal of the nihilism they represent, not as chaotic id, but as muted anhedonia, lays the framework for a filmography of icy horror.
Contributing heavily to this harrowing but hollow atmosphere is Carpenter’s score, a pioneering work of electronic film music that may be more influential than the artist’s entire directorial output. Opening with agitated, rat-a-tat skitters, the score breaks into the pounding clusters of its main theme, a crude replication of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” that trades the sound of “the Viking Horde” rapaciously causing mayhem for a more methodical invader, pounding at castle walls until they collapse. Carpenter also includes a number of atonal shrieks common to early commercial synthesizers, their amplified faintness the artificial replication of an inhaled scream. The score is as responsible as anything for perpetuating the film’s tone of standing on the edge of an abyss, yet its theme is sufficiently propulsive to highlight the narrative’s constant forward motion.
For all its bleakness, however, Assault on Precinct 13 is also a patiently, even warmly observed character study, with many of its key players fleshed out enough on first glance to have carried their own films alone. Rookie cop Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is met enthusiastically heading to his first assignment, but his crestfallen expression upon realizing the thanklessness of his task guarding a skeletal station staff reveal some youthful petulance, a tic only further elicited by the inexperience he shows in talking to head secretary Leigh (Julie Zimmer, supremely Hawksian in her steely-sexy resolve and unflappable competence). Meanwhile, transported killer Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) sets the precedent for Carpenter’s detached but ultimately giving antiheroes, who often find themselves helping out as if against their will. Stoker adds some hastily masked intimidation into Bishop’s face when he first encounters Wilson, but soon Bishop, Leigh, and Wilson set aside their cop/civilian/criminal differences in recognition of each other’s capacity and forge a bond beyond the law. If Assault on Precinct 13 takes place against an abstractly minimal depiction of New Hollywood angst and fear, it nevertheless emerges one of the most optimistic classics of the period, even taking into account the murder of a little girl getting an ice cream cone.
Shout! Factory’s work in bringing John Carpenter’s films to high-definition video has thus far proved revelatory; Prince of Darkness in particular has been saved by decades of home-video neglect. This Blu-ray, however, doesn’t appear to offer any technical difference from Image Entertainment’s now-out-of-print Blu-ray from 2009. This is no drawback, however, as the transfers are excellent, with the film in its proper aspect ratio and an image that maintains the film’s deep blacks and worn brown palette. Audio tracks also appear to be the same as on Image’s release, including a subtly balanced 5.1 mix and a lossless rendering of the original mono. The isolated score track also appears on both discs.
This new Blu-Ray ports over all the extras that previously appeared on Image’s release, including the aforementioned isolated score track, radio spots, and a trailer. Also carried over are meatier extras, including a Carpenter commentary that shows the normally jocular director surprisingly focused, delving deep into the details of the production, as well as a 2002 Q&A with Carpenter and Austin Stoker at a screening that’s interesting and awkward in equal measure (watch for Carpenter himself laughing when an over-eager fan calls Dark Star "unsung and seminal"). New to Shout! Factory’s disc is a second commentary with Tommy Lee Wallace, Carpenter’s childhood friend and one-time man Friday, who provided the art direction and sound effects for the film. Rounding out the disc are two new interviews with Nancy Loomis and Stoker that hammer home how seriously the actors took this genre film and how their personalities helped give life to its stark tone.
Anyone who owns the old Image Entertainment Blu-ray has little reason to double-dip, but otherwise this is the definitive home-video release of John Carpenter’s first great film.