July 9, 2015
The teenagers-in-the-woods theme has been a staple of the horror movie for years, gaining the height of its popularity in the early eighties. Of course, when the stereotype is brought up, the first images that come to mind are those of the Friday the 13th movies, but the trope has been explored in many other fright flicks of the era such as Madman, The Burning, and The Final Terror. In 1980, right at the onset of the trend, director Greydon Clark (Satan’s Cheerleaders, Dance Macabre) was already changing things up by injecting an alien killer into the camping-kids scenario in his sci-fi horror schlockfest Without Warning.
The alien in Without Warning is a tall menacing beast who throws smaller, starfish-like creatures at his victims like ninja stars that attach and rip into flesh with sharp, claw-like appendages. The alien hunts people in the woods near a lake, and the movie revolves around a group of kids who are headed to the lake and are inevitably attacked. Two of the kids, Greg (Roller Boogie’s Christopher S. Nelson) and Sandy (Bitter Harvest’s Tarah Nutter), manage to escape and flee to the nearest town. Unfortunately, there are only two people in town who believe their story – a gas station owner named Joe Taylor (Jack Palance from “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!”) and a crazy old Vietnam veteran named Fred “Sarge” Dobbs (Martin Landau from “Space: 1999”) – and the two locals don’t get along. Greg and Sandy need to figure out whether they can trust either Taylor or Sarge, and decide whether they should attempt to kill the alien or just try to make their escape.
There are a whopping four writers credited with the script for Without Warning, but only two of them are actual screenwriters: Daniel Grodnik, who worked uncredited on Terror Train, and Bennett Tramer (under the name Ben Nett), who went on to do a bunch of “Saved by the Bell” episodes. Also listed as writers are producer Lyn Freeman and gaffer Steve Mathis (who, interestingly enough, has had the most successful career out of the bunch, having worked in the camera/electrical department on everything from Back to the Future and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School to Ted and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). At its root, Without Warning is a slasher, with people being systematically stalked and killed by a mysterious murderer. The alien-hunting-humans premise of the film also seems to have influenced the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Predator, yet the two movies are very different in look and tone. Without Warning is half camp killer flick, half space invader b-movie, and that combination adds up to a whole lot of fun.
One of the big strengths of Without Warning is its cast; the entire ensemble performs with just the right amount of gleeful melodrama so that the audience knows that they are in on the joke instead of being part of it. Of course, Martin Landau and Jack Palance are the big draws, and they deliver, possessing a wacky chemistry between them that would be explored to greater depths a couple of years later in Alone in the Dark. There are plenty of other familiar faces in Without Warning, too. Future “CSI: Miami” hunk David Caruso makes his big-screen debut as one of the hapless camping kids. Cameron Mitchell (Night Train to Terror, Silent Scream) appears as a hunter who is the first to get it in the opening scene. Neville Brand (Eaten Alive) steals his one scene as a barfly who argues with Landau’s Sarge over the alien’s existence. The cast in Without Warning didn’t win any big awards, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t give star-caliber performances.
The design for the head of the main alien antagonist in Without Warning was done, uncredited, by the legendary Rick Baker, who provided makeup and creature effects for not only the Star Wars movies, but plenty of schlocky horror films like The Incredible Melting Man, Videodrome, and Octaman. The alien design in Without Warning is a phone-in job for Baker, being a pretty standard alien form with an egghead shape and big eyes. As stereotypical as it looks, it’s perfect for what the movie is: a b-grade, drive-in sci-fi/horror flick. The actor inside the alien suit was also a legend in his own right – the alien was played by Kevin Peter Hall, who gained fame playing the title alien in the aforementioned Predator movies, but also portrayed big-screen monsters in everything from John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy to Harry and the Hendersons. Both inside and out, the alien in Without Warning wound up having a ton of sci-fi/horror credibility.
Without Warning was shot by cinematographer Dean Cundey, the same director of photography who did most of John Carpenter’s early movies like Halloween and The Fog. It looks like it, too; Without Warning has the look of a supernatural slasher. The film is bathed in a blue light that gives it an otherworldly look, emphasizing the alien aspect as well as the human elements. Cundey also uses the old slasher standby – the POV shot – to add drama and suspense to the film. When he needs a little something fun for the sci-fi scenes, Cundey does this cool little “alien cam” thing, a hot that looks kind of like the camera is attached to one of the flying starfish creatures as it shoots through the air. Thanks to the expert eye of Dean Cundey, the photography in Without Warning brings out both the sci-fi and horror elements of the story.
The soundtrack to Without Warning is the epitome of an early eighties horror score, the same type of sound that has been making a comeback in recent films like The Guest, Starry Eyes, and It Follows. The score was written by another of John Carpenter’s collaborators, Dan Wyman, who orchestrated the early Carpenter films that Dean Cundey shot. Wyman’s music is mostly electronic, with synthesized horns and strings, but still manages to sound live with plenty of pounding percussion and haunting piano. The best way to describe the soundtrack to Without Warning is awesomely eighties-esque.
As enjoyable as it is, the killer-in-the-woods theme can be as tired as it is typical. Sometimes, it just takes a little tweak to make something fresh again. Without Warning, with its alien killer, has that little tweak.