Without Warning

Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.

Cultural infamy: To the degree that it’s known at all, Greydon Clark’s 1980 cheapie science-fiction/horror film Without Warning is known as a significant inspiration for 1987’s much more successful Predator, which copied its idea of an alien hunter coming to earth in search of interesting new game animals—namely people. In publicity interviews in the ’80s, Arnold Schwarzenegger himself explained that Without Warning inspired Predator. (Both films even featured 7-foot-tall Kevin Hall as the costumed alien hunter.) It was also David Caruso’s first credited role, coming out the same year as Getting Wasted.

Curiosity factor: I found Without Warning on a shelf at a video specialty shop, and was immediately struck by the awesomely ridiculous DVD cover—a scared woman with improbably high, firm hover-boobs, screaming and fleeing a bunch of vaguely vaginal, disembodied fanged things. Also tempting: the teaser text, which made it clear this was both a bootleg and a labor of love from someone who really wanted the rest of the world to see this movie. It reads in part, “Without Warning was made for approximately $150,000 and filmed in three weeks by producer/director Greydon Clark, a protégé of Al Adamson. It features cinematography by Dean Cundey, who was soon to go on to Back To The Future and other greener pastures. Future Oscar-winning effects notable Greg Cannom supplied makeup effects… this is not the Widescreen Remastered Deluxe DVD this movie deserves.”

Sold! Besides, I have a personal fondness for Greydon Clark, who directed the recently MYOF’ed Lambada: The Forbidden Dance, and also such hilarious-sounding films as Black Shampoo, Joysticks, Dark Future, and Wacko. More to the point, he directed the howler horror film Satan’s Cheerleaders, which my boyfriend and I ran across back in college while channel-surfing; we tuned in just in time to see some captured cheerleaders escaping, an angry Satanist siccing his dogs Lucifer and Beelzebub on them (is it really respectful to name your dogs after your dark lord and master?), and another angry Satanist shouting “You fool, we want live bodies for the Prince Of Darkness, not shredded corpses!” I largely hoped Without Warning would provide a similar level of camp.

And looking into it, I found out that Without Warning is stuck in a longstanding ownership-rights dispute that seems likely to prevent it from getting an official DVD release, at least unless Greydon Clark manages to sell the remake rights, at which point a DVD release of the original might turn the kind of profit that gets companies cooperating. Until then, though, who can resist a hard-to-find, seminal exploitation film?

The viewing experience: Alas, Without Warning is pretty straight-faced, and mostly pretty dull. It starts off in a vaguely promising way, as a grizzled old hunter hauls his feather-haired, hippie-clothed adult son out of a trailer in the woods and insists on a hunting trip. When the son balks, dad calls him a sissy. The son whines that he doesn’t need to prove he’s a man by toting around a “big gun” and killing innocent creatures, but the dad insists that hunting is the greatest: “There’s not a feeling to beat this in the whole world! Not in the whole bloody world!” He’s so emphatic, it’s almost like he’s trying to set up a theme for later. And not much later, as it turns out. When game turns out to be scarce, dad ominously says he’s gonna kill something today, no matter what. Then he seriously considers turning the gun on his disappointing pacifist son. Moments later, they both get taken out by what look remarkably like hairy flying ears, at least until they latch onto their prey and start producing enormous amounts of blood and pus. Warning: this is damn gross.

With them out of the way—and the audience primed for a movie full of alien-monster gore—the film settles down to a much easier-to-budget pattern of long, dull, dimly lit conversations. First, larval David Caruso and his girlfriend Lynn Theel introduce Caruso’s best friend, Christopher Nelson, and Theel’s best friend, Tarah Nutter, and they head off on a double-date excursion to a lake. This involves endless talking, some forced giggling, and not much getting killed by flying, spinning ears. Eventually, though, they all stop at a seemingly deserted gas station, where the two girls find the women’s room locked, and Nutter breaks into the men’s room. There, she finds some creepy graffiti…

…and an even creepier Martin Landau, who sets up his crazed-veteran character by telling her “This is a men’s latrine!” He turns out to be relatively harmless, though; apparently just being eerie isn’t a crime in a small, creepy town. (Landau, incidentally, was already an established character actor and would soon win approximately a zillion awards, mostly notably a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work as Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. He’s pretty awesomely twitchy in Without Warning, to the degree his burned-out Army-vet role permits.)

Not that Landau has cornered the market on local eeriness. Finding the gas pumps on and no one around, the boys fill up their van and consider driving off, but the girls demand they attempt to pay. This leads to an encounter with weirdo (and also Oscar-winning actor) Jack Palance, who does his best drawling Charlton Heston impression. He also extols the virtues of hunting, to further establish the theme:

Incidentally, his line about how hunting is “a good sport, long as you follow the rules” strikes me as possibly the most direct Predator inspiration in the film. I can easily see someone watching Without Warning, getting to that line, and thinking “You know what would be great? A movie about an alien hunter that actually did follow some rules.” Alas, the only rule the alien hunter in Without Warning follows is “Stay hidden for most of the film, because special effects and makeup are expensive.”

Still, from time to time, someone has to die to remind us that this is a horror movie. So we cut to a scoutmaster (veteran character actor Larry Storch, of F Troop and The Ghost Busters fame) gamely trekking through the woods, trying to sing “Battle Hymn Of The Republic” loud enough to drown out his charges, who are mercilessly droning their way through “99 Bottles Of Beer On The Wall.” (They’ve reached the mid-70s.) After a lonnnnng sequence of local exploration and awkward attempts to educate his bored troop (“The Guapo were famous for raising beans. They were a, uh, bean. Raising. Tribe.”) he sends them all off to gather souvenir rocks and branches from the riverbed: “No rattlesnakes, though, ’cause rattlesnakes… carry germs.” Then he, too, is taken down by a flying, stabby, pus-dripping ear.

Finally, the teenagers—who totally lied to poor old Jack Palance when they promised they wouldn’t go near the lake—get to the lake, where Caruso and Theel, sadly unaware that they’re in a horror movie, settle down for an ill-advised makeout session on an even more ill-advised fuzzy Star Wars blanket. Nelson and Nutter wander off and kill a lot of time before returning to find their friends missing. Eventually, they, too are attacked by one of those flying things—they light up at night for easy viewing, at which point they look more like mini-UFOs than hairy ears. This one latches onto the van windshield and makes those creepy room-full-of-rats noises at them until they finally use the windshield wiper to dislodge it. Eventually, they run across a shack marked “Water Department” that’s filled with the oozing, gooey corpses of everyone killed in the film so far—including Caruso and Theel.

From there, the movie mostly consists of people either running around in the dark or having further long, awkward conversations. Nelson and Nutter seek shelter at a local bar, where Landau turns up again, and it comes out that he’s still stuck in his military past, with a tendency to drop military terms into everyday speech. He’s aware of the aliens, but everyone has dismissed his stories as wild-eyed insanity; provided with proof in the form of Nelson’s story, he gives full rein to his paranoia, going on about how the aliens might be able to take on human form. As the scene continues, he works himself up into a lather, suspecting Nelson, Nutter, and pretty much everyone else in turn. Eventually, confronted with a shadow, he shoots it, to everyone’s horror:

But Palance has an agenda, so he, Nelson, and Nutter leave this tragic scene behind and head off to the corpse-shack. Sadly, they have no clear agreement or plan, so things go awry, leading to more mini-UFOs, more gore, and more chaotic running around. Landau reappears and captures Nelson and Nutter, holding them at gunpoint, insisting that they’re aliens, and demanding to know the invasion plan. When they try to persuade him otherwise, he barks “Believe a POW? Are you kidding? I’m a sergeant!”

At this point, incidentally, the background music changes rather sharply. Earlier scenes got a Jaws-like theme of alternating notes slowly rising, as Clark’s stalking camera moved randomly around rocks and shrubs, presumably representing the alien hunter, or maybe looking for its own prey. As Nelson and Nutter go into full-on fleeing mode, though, the movie switches gears into a minor-key, hair-raising electronic score that strongly recalls John Carpenter’s early work. And with good reason—composer Dan Wyman also served as “electronic orchestrator” on the soundtracks for Carpenter’s The Thing and The Fog.

Another note on this segment of the movie: Everyone in this story has absolutely terrible fleeing instincts. When Nelson and Nutter arrive at the bar, he goes in to make sure it’s safe. Meanwhile, outside, Nutter sees the alien hunter… so she leaves the van and runs into the woods. When Palance, Nelson, and Nutter explore the shack and Palance gets attacked, Nelson and Nutter don’t run back to the van behind them and drive away… they leave it and run into the woods. When Landau holds them at gunpoint in front of a stolen car, they trick him, but instead of grabbing the car and driving off, they… you guessed it… run into the woods. It’s almost like they all keep forgetting the woods are full of flying alien shuriken that keep messily killing people.

Finally, though, the two amateur flee-ers find shelter in a house, where they endure a good old-fashioned “Oh, it’s just a cat” scare. Then, in a series of excruciatingly long, dry scenes, the alien hunter apparently stalks them through the house, turning on lights and tap water that Nelson was pretty sure he’d turned off. This isn’t so much scary as baffling; it makes the alien seem more like a pesky, mischievous gremlin than an all-powerful killer from beyond the stars. But finally, it kills Nelson, which the director reveals in a sequence expressly stolen from Psycho: Nutter turns a chair and reveals his corpse. Pulling back, she accidentally sets an overhead lamp swinging, and the moving light reveals both the body and the alien killer, standing and screaming in a corner, looking like a Star Trek original-series extra:

As it turns out, the alien hunter has no particularly sophisticated powers or weaponry beyond its gross, organic, pus-spewing shuriken. When Nutter flees, it resorts to clawing vaguely at her through windows and cracks in the door. Eventually, Palance reappears with a plan to blow it up along with its shack full of victims, reasoning that like any good hunter, it must eat its prey, so it’ll have to return there sometime. Landau also reappears and decides both Palance and Nutter are aliens, further developing the “humanity is the real enemy” subplot. But fortunately, before he can shoot them, he spots the actual alien, goes after it, and goes down in a welter of alien-shuriken pus. Which leaves the way clear for Palance to sacrifice himself in a huge alien-killing explosion and save the day until next hunting season comes around. Or until Predator, which had more than a hundred times the budget of Without Warning.

How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? Maybe 20 percent. It’s easy to find people on the Internet lauding Without Warning as a horror classic—Fangoria apparently loved it back in the day, though that’s easy to believe, given the film’s focus on rubbery, toothy sucker-monsters sinking tentacles into stretchy, blood-spurting human flesh. And Landau and Palance are both highly entertaining, both because it’s fun to watch younger versions of these venerable actors slumming in such silly material, and because they bring some dignity to roles that are, admittedly better-developed and deeper than most horror-movie-death-fodder characters. That said, it’s an awfully slow, dry ride between meaningful scenes, and there’s way too much waiting and stalling and running around in circles in the dark. Without Warning had its moments, but overall, I got much more out of this 2010 Killer Film interview with Greydon Clark about the movie. It’s a really interesting read that gets into Palance and Landau’s performances and behind-the-scenes behavior, and where the film might go from here. Also, the interviewer digs up some great quotes about the history and impact of the film—including that Martin Landau credits Without Warning for his subsequent work with Francis Ford Coppola. Given this much context, it’s tempting to reassess the film as better than it is, but frankly, I’d rather re-read the interview than re-watch the movie.

Filed Under: DVD

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