John Carpenter, the master of American horror cinema in my book, explores a very real kind of horror in this, his sophomore feature Assault on Precinct 13. While there are no indestructible killers, aliens, or supernatural nasties, AOP13 creates a level of tension and unease far greater than many horror films by simply keeping it real.
Lt. Ethan Bishop (Stoker) is assigned a light detail at a closing precinct on the fringes of Los Angeles. His job; to babysit the building, redirect traffic, and basically spend his first night as a Lietenant twiddling his thumbs with a skelton crew consisting of one officer a dispatcher and records clerk Leigh (Zimmer). Meanwhile, across town, a gang slaying sparks retribution by the victims father who in turn kills the gangs leader and becomes the target of every member in the city. As night falls, a bus transporting prisoners upstate makes a pit stop at the abandoned Precinct 13 when one of the inmates falls violently ill. Tensions mount within the precinct as Bishop tries to maintain order over the temporary prisoners and their charges, but when the man who is being pursued by the gang bursts through the doors seeking refuge, the phone and electricity are cut off. After a hail of gunfire hushed by silencers, Bishop realizes that his station is under siege by a faceless enemy and to survive, cops and crooks have to join forces and make a stand.
Assault on Precinct 13's plot may seem straight out of a western, and it should, since it is based on the classic John Wayne film Rio Bravo. What makes this film qualify as a horror film rather than a simple police drama is the way Carpenter handles the siege. We never get more than a shadowy glance at the gang members outside the precinct's doors. When the gang members drop the flag on the front steps to state that they will achieve their goal at any cost and without regard for their own lives, they become the monster.And perhaps, most terryfying of all is the fact that a police station, the first place one would turn to for safety, is the target of the attack, right in the middle of a city of millions, and yet as isolated as a cabin in the woods.
Carpenter's knack for tight pacing, haunting music and sound effects and just solid visual storytelling shines here and hints at the great things to come. Of course, Carpenter's fondness for macho, melo-dramatic dialogue is also on display here, but it works in favour of the urban western motif'.
The new special edition DVD from Image Entertainment presents the film in a gorgeous new transfer that holds up surprisingly well given the majority of the film is shot in darkness and shadow. There's no noticeable digital noise or pixelization even in the darkest of moments, and artifacts are few and far between. The mono audio mix (which may or may not have been given a digital overhaul; if it has it's not noted on the packaging) is superb.
The special features on the disc include a mangled old trailer for the film that is absolutely hilarious and spot on in it's representation for the way films were marketed in the 1970's. Lots of adjectives like and descriptions of things that aren't really a part of the film at all would explain why Assault was a bit of a flop in it's theatrical release. Had I never seen the film and were shown this trailer, I highly doubt I'd rush out to see it either. It's a great extra, though, just because it's so damned silly.
The disc also features a rarity of sorts (until recently), in that it includes a feature-length commentary track by Carpenter. This is the same commentary from the original DVD release of the film, but it's new to anyone who doesn't own that extremely rare edition, and is highly enjoyable stuff. Carpenter waxes nostalgic on all manner of things, especially his love of the golden age of the western, with the film's inspiration, Rio Bravo, getting due praise.
The DVD also features a lengthy interview segment with Carpenter and star Austin Stoker, who were apparently attending a screening of the film in 2002. The interview is shot by an amateur, and the audio is dodgy in spots, but it's nice to hear from the director and star about their feelings on the film and it's legacy.
Assault on Precinct 13 is a classic film by one of our genre's undisputed masters that belongs in every horror fan's collection. An absolute masterpiece.