Monday, June 1, 2020

Without Warning (1980) review


Christopher S. Nelson (Greg), Tarah Nutter (Sandy), Jack Palance (Taylor), Martin Landau (Dobbs), David Caruso (Tom), Lynn Theel (Beth), Sue Ane Langdon (Aggie), Neville Brand (Leo), Larry Storch (Scoutmaster), Ralph Meeker (Dave), Cameron Mitchell (Hunter), Darby Hinton (Randy), Kevin Peter Hall (Alien)

Directed by Greydon Clark

The Short Version: Greydon Clark's alien slasher movie came without warning right at the beginning of the psycho killer boom of the 80s. This cult favorite isn't a particularly good movie but it has enough wacky elements and a few moments of genuine tension that have made it a lovable low budget gem. The plot has been sucked dry like the alien's victims, but there's a fantastic cast including future Oscar winners Jack Palance and his patented overacting; and Martin Landau's crazed 'Nam vet taking overacting to greater extremes. A moderately gory love letter to 50s SciFi, it's extraordinarily well made for a movie with a $150,000 budget. Influential on the makers of PREDATOR (1987), it's easily the best movie about an alien trophy hunter bagging human prey with the use of flying, plasma-slurping alien flapjacks.

An alien hunter lands on Earth seeking human trophies. After their friends are killed, a young couple try to survive the night while being pursued by the intergalactic invader and his flying, blood-sucking parasites.

Greydon Clark's most well-known movie is arguably his best work; wrangling a great cast of actors and television thespians; topping things off with a few moments of surprisingly eerie atmosphere. Elsewhere, gooey effects work from Greg Cannom off-set the silliness of the pentangular shaped, fang-toothed, plasma-sucking organisms thrown like frisbees that wobble on the strings propelling them through the air. 

For a movie made for $150,000 it left a big impression on the writers of the SciFi hit PREDATOR (1987), a big budget movie pitting Arnold Schwarzenegger and other highly trained soldiers against an alien hunter on Earth seeking trophies in the South American jungle. Director McTiernan swapped out the 50s alien invasion motif/80s slasher pairing to suit the 80s Action Hero style that dominated the decade in its respective genre. Another connection between the two movies was Kevin Peter Hall, the 7'3" actor inside the suits of both hostile visitors.

Hall made a career out of playing monsters, and his height suited such roles. His first was inside the mutant killer bear suit in John Frankenheimer's eco-monster movie PROPHECY (1979). WITHOUT WARNING followed next. He's best remembered for his portrayals as the Predator in PREDATOR and PREDATOR 2 (1990). Sadly, Hall would die from pneumonia in 1991. His last film work was in the wild horror-comedy picture HIGHWAY TO HELL (1991).

The bulbous head and thin body of the unfriendly E.T. is typical of the then cultural fascination with aliens. The ingenuity of the creature's costume looks unusual even though it's just a hammock he's wearing. The monster originally used a bow and arrow, but Clark decided for something more organic and specific to the alien. Attached to its body are these parasitic creatures that operate like homing missiles when thrown like a Frisbee. This added feature is arguably what the film is best remembered for.

The success of WITHOUT WARNING is due in no small part to Academy Award winning makeup effects artist Greg Cannom's squishy FX involving the blood-gurgling, alien flapjacks. When they're flying through the air they look silly (especially the glow in the dark variety) till they latch onto a victims face or other body part. The tentacles emerge, injecting into the victim followed by blood and other bodily fluids erupting from the wounds as it feeds on your insides.

The first look at the otherworldly hunter is very well done with Clark channeling a similar shock moment in PSYCHO (1960); Clark's homage being more effective than anything in that film's shot-by-shot remake from 1998. Some choice editing enhances the surprising potency of this sequence; arguably the best one in the movie. Had Clark been able to display that level of fear and horror throughout, WITHOUT WARNING would be regarded as more than the cult camp item it is today.

The cast has some major names from both film and television; the bulk of them feature in a lengthy bar sequence that feels inspired by the season two TWILIGHT ZONE episode, 'Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?' For 15-20 minutes, the young couple enter the bar and detail their story while the cast contemplate what's out there when the lights go out. Other than seeing these old school actors together in the same sequence (for those who remember them), the scene goes on for too long, failing to amass any tension when it really could've used it. The lumbering pace of the director's cut on this blu-ray also tries the patience.

Landau, who was a fantastic actor, must've been on a ham-only diet while making this. It's one of the most overripe performances ever delivered. He's fine at first, but goes into overdrive hogging a lot of screen time that would've been better suited to encounters with the alien. Co-star and future Oscar winner Jack Palance always went overboard in his movies, but he was also a master of exaggeration. Landau would play a similar role in a far better handled psychopathic performance in the underrated slasher/siege horror picture, ALONE IN THE DARK (1982); also co-starring Jack Palance.

One young actor in the movie would go on to bigger things later in his career; that actor being David Caruso. In WITHOUT WARNING, Caruso is your standard obnoxious teen character that ends up dead in the alien's shed along with Lynn Thell (the beautiful woman that gives birth to a monster in 1980s HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP). After several additional film roles, Caruso broke big on NYPD BLUE (1993-2005) during its first two seasons, winning a Golden Globe before leaving the show shortly into its second season. Striking out as a leading man in movies, he returned to the TV medium on CSI: MIAMI (2002-2012) for the entirety of its ten seasons. 

Elsewhere there's Neville Brand (1954s RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11; THE UNTOUCHABLES TV series), Larry Storch (comedian and star of the F TROOP TV series as well as numerous TV comedies), Sue Ane  Langdon (famously as Mary on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW), Ralph Meeker (1972s THE NIGHT STALKER), and Cameron Mitchell (1952s LES MISERABLES). Mitchell is the classic example of an actor beginning his Hollywood career in high profile pictures before working predominantly in Drive-in style exploitation movies and becoming known more for the latter than the former.

I saw WITHOUT WARNING opening day back in 1980. I saw the trailer on television that morning and immediately rushed upstairs from the den to beg my parents to take me to see it. My mom passed, but my dad decided to take me. It was a much better movie to me as a five year old than now, but it still retains some charm that isn't all about the nostalgia.

If you were interested in Greydon Clark's movies, WITHOUT WARNING is the best place to start. He has a website where you can purchase DVDs and blu-rays of his films as well as a book about making his movies. He also personally signs the items purchased HERE.

WITHOUT WARNING remained MIA on American home video for years. You had to buy bootlegs of foreign releases if you wanted to see it. Showings on HBO, 3am airings on late night TV, MGM HD, and other networks such as Canada's Drive-in Channel under the title of THE WARNING (our old review HERE) were the only ways to see it on North American shores till its 2014 Blu-ray/DVD debut. If you're a fan who hasn't seen it since its initial run, its landing on American home video is a stunning, and welcome, presentation. For cult fans who enjoy such low budget movies with a fascinating history and impressive acting pedigree behind it, don't ignore this WARNING.

This review is representative of the Scream Factory blu-ray/DVD combo. Specs and extras: 1080p HD 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; audio commentary with Greydon Clark; actor/producer/FX artist/DP interviews; original theatrical trailer; other trailers; stills gallery; reversible artwork; running time: 01:36:49

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