Without Warning (1980)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2014-08-02 07:11

Written by: Lyn Freeman, Daniel Grodnik, Ben Nett, and Steve Mathis
Directed by: Greydon Clark
Starring: Jack Palance, Martin Landau, and Tarah Nutter

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

"You've seen those flying critters. Feisty little things aren't they?"

The opening credits of Without Warning are kind of thrilling—and I don’t meant in a smart-ass, back-handed compliment sort of way that implies it’s all downhill from that point. Instead, there’s a genuine sense of awe and discovery (not to mention an underlying curiosity about just how this thing has remained hidden away all these years) as they roll along: here’s a junky killer alien movie helmed by minor B-movie maestro Greydon Clark (Joysticks, Wacko) starring Jack Palance, Martin Landau, Neville Brand, Cameron Mitchell, Ralph Meeker, and David Caruso. When Dean Cundey’s name appeared as the cinematographer, even the revelation that it took four writers to pen a script about a bloodthirsty extraterrestrial couldn’t deter me from assuming Without Warning to be some kind of unsung treasure.

It was a fun assumption while it lasted, which is to say not very long: its prologue briefly hints that Without Warning is going to be some kind of tone-deaf, weirdo junkfest, as a fussy old codger (Mitchell) yells at this kid to come out of their camper and enjoy their hunting trip. You’re perhaps expecting some jaded, disaffected teenager to step out; instead, a grown-ass, mustachioed man enters the picture and whines about their relationship, which is so strained that the dad feigns shooting the son twice. I have no idea what this is about, nor is the film particularly interested in illuminating it since these two are summarily killed by an alien parasite. If this trip was meant to be a therapeutic one, I think they did it wrong.

The first of several egregious instances of padding, this prologue yields to the actual story: a quartet of kids are headed out for a weekend at the lake but make a pit stop at a hayseed gas station, where the creepy attendant (Palance) warns them not to go any further (reminder: this movie’s called Without Warning). You mostly know how this goes from here: they don’t listen, a couple wind up on meathooks, and the survivors ((Tarah Nutter & Christopher Nelson) come back to town to fend off the alien with the gas station attendant and the town’s resident paranoid, shell-shocked Vietnam vet (Landau)—wait, what? That actually sounds amazing.

Emphasis on sounds, though—a contemplative, Cold War allegory a la Body Snatchers this ain’t, though it’s sort of interesting to note that Caruso (here playing a twerp who wants to steal gas, thus marking him not long for this world) managed to star in two movies about unhinged Vietnam survivors. Without Warning isn’t nearly as sympathetic towards the shell-shocked as First Blood is, though; in fact, Landau’s raving lunatic sometimes seems just as dangerous as the extraterrestrial he’s sworn to snuff out and destroy. Again, a thoughtful, Romero-esque exploration of humanity being more frightening than monsters this is not, though Landau’s madness brings a tiny bit of menace since you’re pretty sure he might actually start blowing everyone away since he’s convinced they’re aliens (he actually does accidentally shoot a guy, so this is a well-founded possibility).

But at least something is there to feel threatening, as the extraterrestrial danger feels pretty minimal for a long, dull stretch where our surviving duo seek refuge in a cabin. Imagine that brief, momentum-killing bit in Friday the 13th where Alice decides to make some tea, only stretched out to what feels like eternity. The two make themselves rather comfortable, with the gal taking the liberty of nestling up in the bed (after a weirdly dramatic moment involving a music box—I wish this were all as nuts as it sounds) and the guy taking watch until the film seemingly wakes up and remembers there’s an alien wandering around out there for the climax. There’s enough kookiness waiting out there with it (Palance gives one of the craziest battle cry imaginable when charging into tangle with the beast), but it doesn’t completely excuse Without Warning from being so dull otherwise.

Finally watching Without Warning stirred up memories of Fred Olen Ray’s Alien Dead; while the two aren’t completely similar, this one feels like a slightly more polished, more bloated take on the extraterrestrial splatter flick, especially during the early-going, when it looks like Clark will be content to just rove around and off random victims (there’s a whole interlude featuring a Boy Scouts troop and their leader that never figures into the rest of the move. Substitute a machete-wielding masked slasher with an extraterrestrial that flings parasites like a Frisbee, and you get the picture. Without Warning is actually at its best when it’s dwelling on puss-and-blood-covered corpses and alien parasites sucking people’s flesh off. The gags are effectively gooey and gory, plus the actual alien (who is withheld until the climax, so Clark at least has some understanding of showmanship) feels like a cool throwback to 50s B-movie monsters with its bulbous head and blue skin. Clark never quite finds the right tone, though—there’s a certain severity to his handling of the film that snuffs out whatever outrageous fun such schlock should arise from an alien wreaking splattery havoc on Earth.

The being’s motivations and existence remain an enigma, though one of the characters supposes it’s there just to hunt for the sport of it; with Kevin Peter Hall in the suit, it’s impossible not to at least marvel at how this beat Predator to the punch by seven years, a fact that hasn't gone unnoticed by Clark, who shares an anecdote involving Schwarzenegger’s acknowledgement of Without Warning during his newly recorded commentary for the film’s DVD/Blu-ray release. This one’s a big deal: though Without Warning has played on television (I’ve had a recording of it collecting dust on my DVR for months), it’s never received an American home video release of any kind. At this point, we’re accustomed to films hitting Blu-ray without having made it to DVD first, but this one never even made it to VHS, which is almost unthinkable.

Though the film itself may not have been worth such a wait (though it’s hardly as terrible as this sort of obscurity might imply), Scream Factory’s disc is more than worthwhile. The high-definition transfer marvelously shows off Cundey’s well-done photography (if nothing else, Without Warning looks pretty great, sort of a platonic ideal of backwoods alien-slasher flicks: lots of deep blues, blacks, and fog), with the DTS-MA stereo track serving as a more than adequate compliment. Clark’s commentary is the centerpiece supplement, and it’s joined by a quartet of separate interviews with the cast and crew. Nutter and Nelson reminisce and provide some humorous anecdotes in “Greg & Sandy’s Alien Adventures,” while Cundey and effects creator Greg Cannom discuss their contributions. Writer/producer Daniel Grodnik gives a brief overview of the film’s conception, release, and legacy in an eleven-minute chat that’s rather informative. All told, this stuff would add up to a typical Scream Factory retrospective, and, with the addition of the film’s trailer, this actually feels like a Collector’s Edition without the official designation. Veteran genre fans will likely be over-the-moon with the very idea of such a release that has always seemed virtually impossible, even if it's more fun to pretend the film itself is a sequel involving Palance and Landau's characters from Alone in the Dark. Rent it!

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