Monday, December 9, 2013

Blu-ray Review: ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)


Collector's Edition Blu-ray

Label: Scream Factory / Shout! Factory
Region Code: A
Duration: 91 Minutes
Rating: R
Audio: DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 with Optional English SDH Subtuitles
Video: 1080p Widescreen
Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer, Nancy Loomis, Tony Burton, Peter Franklin, Cgarles Cypher 

John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 is deceptively simplistic siege-classic executed with gritty perfection. On a fateful night three disparate elements converge on the titular decommissioned police station in L.A., what transpires is a white-knuckle thriller packed with claustrophobic atmosphere and sweaty tension, definitely a true cult-classic.

Newly promoted Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker, Horror High) is assigned to oversee the decommissioning of a police station during its last few hours, there's only a skeleton crew manning the station; Captain Chaney (Henry Brandon, The War of the Worlds) and the station's two cute, sweater-bound secretaries, Leigh (Laurie Zimmer, A Dirty Story) and Julie (Nancy Loomis, Halloween). It seems like a pretty east gig but things have a way of turning for the worse now don't they? 

Things at the station are pretty low-key until a prison bus transporting three prisoners arrives seeking medical attention for one of the convicts. On this particular bus is the notorious murderer Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston, Eraserhead) on his way to Death Row, he's joined by Wells (Tony Burton, The Magnificent Seven), and Caudell (Peter Franklin, The Puppet Master), plus correctional officer Starker (Charles Cyphers, Escape from New York) and the bus driver. 

At the same time not too far away the warlords of the multi-racial L.A. gang Street Thunder have declared war on the city of Los Angles in retaliation for for the death of its gang members who were ambushed by the LAPD. They drive the streets of the ghetto looking for random victims when they happen upon an ice cream truck driver parked on the side of the street, in the aftermath a young girl lays dead in the street (a shocking scenario!). The young girls enraged father pursues the gang through the streets, eventually catching-up and killing one of the warlords. Now on foot he is chased by the remaining gang members to the 13th Precinct. Once inside he collapses in a state of shock and is unable to relay what is happening. Without warning the gang lay siege to the building beginning with a spray of silenced gunfire killing several officers and prisoners in very short order. 

With the power cut and the phone lines dead and with precious few alternatives Bishop unchains the surviving prisoners in a desperate attempt to thwart certain death. That's pretty much the entire film, it's pretty simple stuff and while it's a bit of a slow start as the three story lines are established once they converge this pot-boiler never looks back. The tension is oppressive as they are holed-up in the precinct with very few weapons, cut off from the world. In contrast the gang have large numbers of armed members with no fear of death, Bishop and his ragtag crew don't seem to have a snowball's chance in Hell of surviving this skirmish. Street Thunder are relentless and unflinching, devoid of humanity, it really does start to feel like a page from George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) in that respect. 

Assault on Precinct 13 was John Carpenter's first feature out of film school but we see many of 
what would become his trademarks, a very real sense of isolation, it's gritty and realistic approach, gorgeously shot in Carpenter-Vision aspect ratio plus we get a sweet Carpenter synth-score featuring a totally bad ass main theme that immediately sets a dark urban tone, it's one of his most recognizable pieces, a stone-cold classic. 

The cast of relative unknowns is very strong, the relationship between Lt. Bishop and Napoleon is fun stuff, particularly Joston as the wise cracking anti-hero always trying to bum a smoke. He's right up there with Snake Plisken (Escape from New York) as one of Carpenter's most iconic anti-hero figures and the wry banter back and forth between the two is great stuff, the two have a great chemistry. Laurie Zimmer appears as one of the secretaries trapped in the precinct and there's some simmering sexual tension between her character and Napoleon, it's a nice touch.

Blu-ray: Assault of Precinct 13 (1975) comes to Blu-ray from Shout Factory horror imprint Scream Factory with a very pleasing 1080p widescreen (2.35:1) transfer, considering the low budget origins of the movie colors are strong and black levels are pretty decent, a few of the darker scenes can be grain heavy but not it's not awful and I welcome a nice health layer pf natural film grain which is what we have here. The elements used for the master were in excellent shape, there were very few instances of print damage, just some minor speckling. 

Om he audio front we have two options, the original DTS-HD Master Audio Mono for the purists and a potent DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix which sounds fantastic. It has more presence and oomph than the 2.0 mono and John Carpenters menacing synth-driven score sounds fantastic, this time around I preferred the 5.1 which while predominantly front heavy does open it up a bit.

Onto the special features we begin with the commentary from the previous DVD edition with John Carpenter, it's still one of my favorite non-Kurt Russel commentaries from Carpenter who goes into great detail about making the movie, budget issues, locations and some great anecdotes, this is a top-notch commentary and it's great to see it carried over. 

Also carried over from the previous DVD release is a 2002 interview with Carpenter and star Austin Stoker following a screening of the film at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, it's good stuff with Carpenter fielding questions from the audience and explaining the origins of the project and what it was like shooting is first solo-directed feature. Carpenter is in fine form here, very funny with some great anecdote about skirting an x-rating from the MPAA, his influence on Tarantino and Guy Richie, recording the score and his post Dark star relationship with Dan O'Bannon.  

Onto the new features we have a new audio commentary from  Art Director and Sound Effects Editor Tommy Lee Wallace moderated by Michael Felsher of Red Shirt Pictures, it's another fun with Wallace going into some great stories about collaboration with Carpenter, the different locations and his career. Special features producer Michael Felsher does a great job keeping the track going, prompting Wallace from time to time and asking the questions fans would want to know, good stuff. 

Red Shirt Pictures have also produced two brand-new featurettes with stars Nancy Loomis and Austin Stoker. Stoker goes into his early careers and working with Carpenter on the film, a particular scene he'd like to go back and switch-up a bit. Loomis also touches on her early career, Carpenter's original plan to make a western, the location, her character and life after acting plus the convention experience. 

Extras are finished off with an isolated music score featuring Carpenter's bad-ass synth score, a theatrical trailer, still gallery and radio spots for the film. Scream Factory have done an outstanding job so far with these John Carpenter re-issues on Blu-ray, hope to see more soon!

Special Features:
- Audio Commentary with writer/director John Carpenter
- NEW Audio Commentary with Art Director and Sound Effects Editor Tommy Lee Wallace
- NEW interview with actress Nancy Loomis Kyes (12:43)
- NEW interview with actor Austin Stoker (7:48)
- Interview with John Carpenter and Austin Stoker(23:07)
- Theatrical Trailer (2:03)
Radio Spots (1:04)

- Gallery (3:20)

Verdict: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) is a white knuckle cult-thriller, it starts off a bit slow but once things pick-up it's pretty relentless, a siege classic and one Hell of a tense ride. Scream Factory's new Collector's Edition Blu-ray is a top notch presentation, yet another John Carpenter classic gets a sweet 1080p edition with some great value-added extras, a no-brainer, buy it! 4 Outta 5