Without Warning (1979) Without Warning / It Came Without Warning (1979/1980) ***

     You’ve definitely heard this one before: “What if we did The Most Dangerous Game again, only this time Count Zaroff was from outer space?” It is, after all, the premise behind one of the top-shelf classic sci-fi/action/horror movies of the 1980’s. Predator wasn’t the first film to use it, however. At the very turn of the decade, a more budget-conscious alien went big-game hunting on Earth, and the trashfilm archaeologists at Shout Factory have put the record of his forgotten safari back into circulation after decades of unavailability.

     A loud-mouthed jerk (Cameron Mitchell, from Deadly Prey and The Tomb) has somehow succeeded in browbeating his bookish son (Darby Hinton, of Dark Future and The Return) into accompanying him on a weekend hunting trip. He seems to regard the outing as an intervention, injecting some emergency testosterone into the boy before his no-good mother can finish turning him into some kind of queer. Fortunately, we will not have to spend very long in this delightful company, for the man and his unwilling offspring are not the only hunters in this particular stretch of country. We get barely a glimpse of it on this occasion, but a being from another world (Kevin Peter Hall, whose other monster-suit gigs include Mazes and Monsters and Prophecy) is stalking the area, armed with strange, living weapons that function like vampire frisbees. The alien kills father and son alike, then absconds with their bodies to who-knows-where, leaving only their discarded guns and abandoned Winnebago to mark their passing. Some time later, a similar fate befalls a scoutmaster (Larry Storch, of Sweet Sixteen and The Monitors) who foolishly marches his troop into the same patch of wilderness.

     We’ll actually spend some time getting to know the next bunch of victims. Young lovers Tom (Session 9’s David Caruso) and Beth (Lynn Theel, of Humanoids from the Deep) mean to spend a day or two relaxing up by the monster-haunted lake, and they’ve each brought along a friend with whom they hope to set up the other’s. Tom’s buddy is Greg (Christopher S. Nelson, from Roller Boogie); the blind date Beth has supplied for him is Sandy (Trish Nutter). Greg and Sandy seem to hit it off okay, but not so much that they won’t be uncomfortable later, when their friends get so busy boning that they’re left effectively alone together at their own devices. Mind you, that discomfort won’t hold a candle to what all four kids feel during what turns out to be history’s creepiest pit stop. Taylor’s Gas Station appears to be open when Tom pulls his van up to the pumps. At least, neither the front door, the door to the men’s room, nor the pumps themselves are locked. There’s nobody at the counter, though, nor does anyone come out in response to Tom’s call. Then the girls discover that the women’s bathroom is locked, and when they try to use the men’s instead, they have their first run-in with Sergeant Fred Dobbs (Martin Landau, from Alone in the Dark and The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre). Dobbs is your classic loony ’Nam vet, and although he doesn’t strike Beth or Sandy as hostile precisely, there’s a clear hint of danger about him. Finally, while the young travelers are grappling with the question of how they’re supposed to pay for their gas, the eponymous Joe Taylor (Jack Palance, from Evil Stalks This House and Deadly Sanctuary) deigns at last to emerge from the living quarters attached to his store— and if you thought Dobbs was off-putting, wait ’til you get a load of this guy! The most troubling thing about him is the intensity with which he insists that it isn’t safe for the kids up at the lake. All he’ll say by way of explanation is that it’s hunting season.

     It certainly is, and the vacationers haven’t been at the lake very long before Tom and Beth disappear without a trace. Greg and Sandy go looking, of course, and eventually find what’s left of their friends— along with what’s left of the Great White Hunter, his son, and the scoutmaster— hung up in the water department pumping shed which the alien has apparently commandeered to be its trophy room. An encounter with the creature itself soon follows, during which the pair earn distinction as the first people to see the alien and live.

     Ah, but were they really? It turns out that Joe Taylor has a scar on his forearm that certainly looks like it could have been inflicted by a vampire Frisbee. Perhaps this isn’t the first time this particular bug-eyed monster has gone safariing around here. Meanwhile, Sergeant Dobbs is more than ready to believe in UFOs and killer spacemen himself; it’s enough to make you wonder if he saw more than the ordinary horrors of war over in the Indochinese jungle. The two men are getting the side-eye from an entire bar-and-grill full of naggingly familiar over-the-hill character actors when Sandy and Greg come stumbling in, ranting about predatory Martians and sheds full of corpses. The kids make both a friend and an enemy on this occasion. On the upside, their story convinces Taylor that the time has come for a rematch against the extraterrestrial big-game hunter. But on the downside, Dobbs gets it into his head that Sandy and Greg are themselves aliens in human guise, and that this business about being victims of an interplanetary safari is what today’s paranoid lunatic would call a false-flag operation. The vet gets so worked up that he shoots a sheriff’s deputy dead when the latter man unexpectedly steps into the bar, and that’s when all hell pretty much breaks loose. One thing’s absolutely for sure: neither Sandy nor Greg is ever going out on a blind date again, even if they do make it out of this alive.

     My first impression of Without Warning was that this is the alien invasion movie you’d make immediately after you saw Friday the 13th. It’s got the woodland setting, the young protagonists, the body-count structure during the first act, the finding-the-bodies scene, and a whole rural hamlet apparently populated by nothing but Crazy Ralphs. The handling of the alien seems Friday the 13th, too. Only at the climax do we get a clear look at it; until then, it’s portrayed almost exclusively by a roving POV cam and closeups on its weird, biological weapons. Friday the 13th can’t have had any direct influence on Without Warning, however, because the former movie hadn’t been released yet when the latter was in the works. Instead, producer-director Graydon Clark must simply have been driven to the same kinds of expedients by a similar set of pressures as those which drove Sean Cunningham’s more famous efforts on the opposite coast. And when I take a closer look at Without Warning with that in mind, I see some interesting differences in the way the aforementioned common tricks and techniques are used here. In a slasher movie, finding the bodies is usually the cue for the Final Girl sequence to begin in earnest, and indeed it marks the beginning of open hostilities here between the alien and the humans who will eventually bring it to bay. But this movie’s writers put that scene at the end of the very first act, so that there’s a long way to go yet before the endgame. Next, although it’s true that Frank Dobbs and Joe Taylor initially play the familiar “harbinger of misfortune” role reserved for reclusive loonies in 80’s horror films, they each end up being much more important than that. Taylor blossoms into almost a Dr. Van Helsing figure, while Dobbs becomes a totally unpredictable spoiler, equally apt to intervene against either side of the main conflict. Finally, although Without Warning does have a body-count aspect, the pace at which the alien winnows the cast suggests less Friday the 13th than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That pumping shed fills up with corpses awfully fast!

     As for the alien itself, Without Warning gets the balance just about exactly right. The mask— made by Rick Baker at a reported cost of $19,000— is impressively convincing for something that barely moves, even if it’s oddly old-fashioned in concept. With its compound eyes and bulbous cranium, it’s the kind of thing that has been little seen since “The Outer Limits” went off the air for the first time. The skull-like facial features, however, make me wonder if Baker hadn’t been thinking specifically of the old Mars Attacks! trading cards (on which the later Tim Burton movie was based). The vampire Frisbees are a neat touch as well. Having the creature use them instead of, say, a raygun emphasizes its unearthliness beyond what might seem naturally possible for a tall guy in a mask and a vaguely futuristic jumpsuit. They’re nicely repellant to look at, too, resembling a cross between a starfish, a lamprey’s mouth, and something a concerned dermatologist would remove from your armpit. Perhaps most importantly, we see just enough of the alien and its weapons to appreciate their good qualities, without getting to know their shortcomings too well.

     Remarkably, however, Without Warning succeeds best as a showcase for over-the-hill B- and C-listers hamming at full throttle. Cameron Mitchell’s disgusted father, Martin Landau’s berserk ’Nam vet, Jack Palance’s kooky hermit, the lineup of cantankerous backwoods barflies in the diner scene— most movies of this sort could find gainful employment for just one such performance. Graydon Clark, though, saw the potential value in contrasting the relatively naturalistic and restrained acting of the four young vacationers against a solid backdrop of wide-gauge weirdoes. Sandy, Greg, Tom, and Beth thus have a culture-shock problem to deal with before they ever meet the Great Blue Hunter, which inevitably complicates all of their efforts to enlist aid once the monster makes its presence felt. To my considerable astonishment, I’m even prepared to include Larry Storch in my praise for the Overacting Elders of Without Warning. His improvised-sounding dialogue and strained delivery are just slightly off in a manner that suggests a man bullshitting his way through something that he’s recognized too late as a really terrible idea. Indeed, Storch’s surreal admonishment to the Cub Scouts to stay away from rattlesnakes because they carry germs is probably my favorite line in the whole film.



     The hunt is on here at the B-Masters Cabal! This time, we're taking on an old obsession of mine, movies in which humans are hunted for sport. Click the banner below to see what my colleagues have brought to bay:




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