Starring Jack Palance, Martin Landau, Tarah Nutter, Cameron Mitchell
Distributed by The Scream Factory
It isn’t entirely unheard of for completed horror films to sit on the shelf after completion due to any number of issues – legal or other – delaying their release. The Cabin in the Woods (2012) and All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006) are two recent examples of movies that waited years for a proper release, and only recently did The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007) secure a limited theatrical release after several years of languishing on MGM’s shelves. A less common problem than that, however, is when a film is completed, gets a theatrical release, and then simply vanishes without a proper home video release. Practically everything got released on VHS back in the day, so to have your film bypass all home media entirely is quite a dubious honor. Such was the case for director Greydon Clark’s Without Warning (1980, aka It Came Without Warning). The film scored a theatrical run over thirty years ago, but due to Filmways, Inc. going bankrupt in 1987 – after they had purchased American International Pictures, the owner of Without Warning, in 1979 – the title simply vanished into the vaults. Over the years it showed up on television sporadically, most recently remastered in HD for the late Monsters HD channel, but it wasn’t until Scream Factory picked it up for this Blu-ray release that it would finally be available to audiences.
The odd thing is this isn’t a bad movie. It’s not a case of no one giving it a release because it’s a shoddy piece of work. Director Greydon Clark was responsible for a handful of cult classics, including Satan’s Cheerleaders (1977), Joysticks (1987), and for introducing audiences to the slickest hair stylist in blaxploitation, Mr. Jonathan, star of Black Shampoo (1976). The picture also has a solid roster of talent involved, including stars Jack Palance and Martin Landau, cinematography from John Carpenter’s longtime D.P., Dean Cundey, and practical FX work by Rick Baker and Greg Cannom. Clark’s film manages to stand out by crafting a foreboding atmosphere alongside well-written characters with easily understood motivations, while the main alien is confined to shadows for nearly the entire picture. Even with the big draw sidelined for ¾ of the running time, the film lags during just a few scenes, maintaining a brisk pace that commendably builds up the alien hunter’s appearance during a final assault.
Without Warning opens with a father (Cameron Mitchell) and his son camping on the outskirts of the woods, with dad all gung-ho about getting on with their morning hunting. The son couldn’t care less. As both set off to catch some game, however, an organic flying disc (like a ninja star as realized by David Cronenberg, if that makes sense) latches onto the old man and digs in with some gnarly, long tentacles. The son is attacked, too. We’re then introduced to four teenagers (among them a young David Caruso) who are setting off for a hike in the same woods. They stop at a convenience station first, running across the local PTSD-affected veteran, Sarge (Martin Landau), and the owner of the gas station, Joe Taylor (Jack Palance), who warns them to stay out of the woods. He sounds like a typical old crazy loon, so naturally the kids completely disregard his threats. Back in the same spot where the hunter and his son were killed, a troop of Cub Scouts and their leader, played by Larry Storch of “F Troop” (1965-1967) fame, are on a daytime adventure when the flying alien discs attack and kill him, sending the kids away screaming bloody murder.
Our leading group of teens arrives at their campsite and set up shop. It seems like Without Warning is going to be a typical slasher film, only with an alien instead of a masked killer. But when two of them are killed right away, the remaining teens – Greg (Christopher S. Nelson) and Sandy (Tarah Nutter) – run to the safety of a nearby bar, where both Sarge and Taylor, along with some of the local barflies, are enjoying a couple cold ones. Nobody believes the kids except for Sarge, and his mental state doesn’t make him the best candidate to be armed for protection. When the cops show up to assist, Sarge goes mental and shoots the sheriff after mistaking him for the alien. Sensing Sarge might be a bad guy to hang around with, Greg & Sandy leave with Taylor, who it turns out isn’t a crazy old kook after all. Seems he’s had a run-in with the alien and his flying jellyfish discs before, with the scars on his leg to prove it. Together, Taylor and the teens devise a plan of attack to take the alien out, but the looming threat of a mentally deranged Sarge might throw a wrench into things.
What’s great about Without Warning is that the characters populating the film are given just enough backstory to make them interesting, while still maintaining an air of mystery. Landau delivers a perfectly unstable performance as Fred ‘Sarge’ Dobbs, the seemingly-genial old codger whose mental state unravels faster than a poorly-knit sweater once the alien threat is known. After shooting the sheriff it seems like he’s remorseful and trying to get it together, only to dive right off the deep end with his antics in the film’s third act. Watching Landau express such psychoses is testament to why he’s an Oscar winner. And he’s acting alongside another Academy Award winner, Jack Palance, who was never one to take roles lightly. Palance knew how to chew scenery like no one else in the business. He seems like a Crazy Ralph type at the onset, like maybe he’ll be a problem for the kids while they’re out hiking.
Once the crap hits the fan at the bar, though, he springs into action and lets his bravado loose with serious panache. The backstory of his prior encounters with the alien, and the fact he keeps the discs that attacked him like trophies, put his character on an almost level playing field with the big baddie. Also, his triumphant charge near the climax while shouting “ALIEN!” is pure gold. Speaking of the alien, it was played by Kevin Peter Hall, who fans should remember played the Predator in the 1987 testosterone-fueled classic of the same name. Coincidentally enough, his role here is that of an alien that hunts people and keeps them in a shack as food/trophies; not unlike his role in Predator, just seven years earlier.
One minor screenplay moment that resonates here is when Greg & Sandy are in a house together near the climax and things have quieted down a bit. One of them opens a small music box and it begins to play, prompting Sandy to break down and mourn the loss of her friend, Beth (Lynn Thell), who was killed earlier. More often than not in horror films, once people are dead and off-screen it becomes “out of sight, out of mind” and friends you thought were tight don’t even shed a tear when close buddies are killed. Little flourishes such as this are what make the character drama of this picture more compelling than expected.
There are more than a couple of moments when things get a bit slow. Still, fans of old-school sci-fi/alien invader movies should find they’re pleasantly surprised by how well this is pulled off. The alien flying discs are nasty little suckers (literally), with oozing puss and blood dripping during every attack. Greg Cannom can be thanked for these gross little guys. The alien hunter is a very stereotypical design, albeit a tall one, but it was also done by FX legend Rick Baker, and it looks very convincing and even a bit menacing. Keep in mind, by the way, all of this was done on a budget of $150,000 – and both Palance and Landau were paid $50,000 each for their parts, leaving the production with a paltry $50,000 for the ENTIRE film. Considering that fact, this is a masterful piece of cinema. Clark makes use of many natural locations, employs strong actors, and slowly heightens the tension before arriving at an explosive conclusion. Without Warning may have gone largely unseen for the past thirty years, but I’ve got a feeling it has a long shelf life ahead on home video once people are able to see how well it was made.
For a film shot on a meager budget, the 1.60:1 1080p picture sure looks pretty damn good. After getting past some rough optical opening credits, the film begins in a brightly lit daytime exterior that allows for maximum detail to be presented. Wide and medium shots look pretty soft, but closeups aren’t half bad at all. A moderate layer of grain covers the picture, but it never becomes noisy or distorted. Colors appear accurate, if a bit muted. There’s not much “pop” to the picture, and it lacks depth, but the print used was clearly kept in good shape. There’s no noticeable damage or flecks present. Contrast is acceptable during the daylight scenes, but at night shadow details are virtually invisible. Cundey is known for his low-lighting photography – they don’t call him “Prince of Darkness” for nothing – but the severely limited budget and outdoor sets clearly didn’t allow for much in the way of crafting shots that are easy to read on camera. Black levels are a little anemic, experiencing some compression issues during the darkest of scenes, but they remain relatively stable throughout the picture’s second half. Aside from a couple of terrible interior shots, where grain spikes and the image looks washed out, this is a fine effort.
An English DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo track carries the film’s sound. Things sound a bit thin, with not much in the way of range, but it does have a decent presence. It’s clean and free of any audible deficiencies. The real winner is composer Dan Wyman’s score, which features a variety of leitmotifs and “alien” sounds to signify when danger is lurking around the corner. I liked his use of a military style motif for Sarge’s scenes, and even the alien discs have their own cues, too. All these various compositions are woven together tightly, creating a seamless score that is never dull. Dialogue sounds good; balanced and registering well in the mix. Subtitles are included in English.
Director Greydon Clark is on hand to provide an audio commentary that, while informative, is a bit stilted and sounds like he’s reciting it off notecards. No matter, since he provides a great deal of information regarding the shoot, the tiny budget, stories of working with such acting talent, and the film’s woes when the parent studio went under.
Greg & Sandy’s Alien Adventures is an interview with Nelson and Nutter, talking about how they obtained their roles in the film, along with a bit on their background in acting and some anecdotes from the set. Producers vs. Aliens with Daniel Grodnik is an interview with Grodnik, who also produced Terror Train (1980), talking about the difficulties in getting Without Warning made, which included the first writer walking off the job (by pigeonholing himself as a “comedy only” writer). He also speaks about paying Rick Baker to make the alien head sculpt, as well as working on the Paramount ranch where much of the film was shot. Hunter’s Blood with Greg Cannom is an interview with the FX veteran, in which he talks about the work he provided for the film and how much fun he had with Kevin Peter Hall on set. Independents Day with Dean Cundey is an interview with Cundey, where he mentions this was his fourth film with Greydon Clark, so the two had a good rapport by the time it came to making this film. He’s got some positive recollections about working with a legend like Palance, too. The film’s theatrical trailer and a still gallery are also included. “More from Scream Factory” includes trailers for I Come in Peace, Motel Hell, The Beast Within and Schizoid. The two-disc set comes with cover art that can be reversed to display the original theatrical key art, which goes under the title It Came Without Warning.
- Audio Commentary with producer/director Greydon Clark
- New Interviews with Cinematographer Dean Cundey, Co-Writer/Co-Producer Daniel Grodnik, Special Make-Up Effects Creator Greg Cannom and Actors
- Christopher S. Nelson and Tarah Nutter
- Theatrical Trailer
- Still Gallery
7 1/2 out of 5
4 out of 5
Discuss Without Warning in the comments section below!