After the one-two punch of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and Star Wars, filmmakers looking for a commercially exploitable hook came down with a big case of “space fever.” Those on the low-budget end of the spectrum didn’t have the resources for tricky visual effects or elaborate spaceship models but still managed to find clever ways to exploit their audience’s desire for alien encounters.
A particularly interesting example of this sort of low-budget ingenuity is Without Warning. This space-schlocker was directed by Greydon Clark, a fairly prolific drive-in auteur, and boasts an interesting plot hook that crosses the streams between sci-fi and horror. In a rural town located near a lake and a forest, a mysterious figure has begun to pick off various townspeople. The mystery figure doesn’t use a knife or a gun – instead, it uses fleshy, toothy “discs” that fly through the air and drain their unlucky victims.
The only two people wise to what’s going on are Joe (Jack Palance), an ornery gas-station owner who loves to hunt, and Sarge (Martin Landau), a loony ex-military man who thinks the war never ended. Into the midst of this insanity wanders a quartet of teens looking for sun and fun at the lake. Unfortunately, two of the four (a young David Caruso and Lynn Theel, one of the victims from Humanoids From The Deep) get picked off and nominal heroes Greg (Christopher Nelson) and Sandy (Tarah Nutter) are left to fight the mystery attacker, who is eventually revealed to be a visitor from another planet.
Without Warning has a certain amount of buzz surrounding it in cult/exploitation flick circles, mainly because it has been hard to see over the years (it was never available in the U.S. on VHS or DVD, forcing horror and sci-fi fans to hunt it down on cable t.v.). It also boasts a fun supporting cast of character actors: in addition to the aforementioned Palance and Landau, it also boasts cameos from Larry Storch as an ill-fated cub scout leader, Cameron Mitchell as a gung-ho hunter, a pre-Malibu Express Darby Hinton as Mitchell’s son and Neville Brand and Ralph Meeker (in his last role) as a pair of disbelieving bar patrons. Another key element of the film’s appeal is that it was borrowed from by Predator, which it predates by a good seven years (both films also feature Kevin Peter Hall playing their central alien characters!).
Unfortunately, Without Warning falls short of its promise due to a lackluster treatment of its admittedly intriguing premise. Despite the presence of four screenwriters, the subplots never cohere and there are moments where the story drags – the worst is a long ten-minute of stretch of nothing at the top of the third act as our two teen heroes wander around aimlessly in a rural house. Clark’s direction is technically solid but weak on pace and the humdrum script keeps the film from being more than an under-performing programmer.
That said, exploitation buffs with a yen for sci-fi/horror stuff will still want to check out Without Warning for a few reasons. For starters, Palance and Landau are a lot of fun to watch, with Palance delivering all his lines in a surly whisper/growl and Landau hamming it up like there’s no tomorrow. The flesh-disc effects are wonky but fun to watch and the design of the alien, masterminded by a pre-Lost Boys Greg Cannom, has a cool, retro design to it. Better yet, the last ten minutes deliver a worthwhile showdown between man and alien that sends the film out on a positive note.
However, the best thing about Without Warning is the stellar cinematography by Dean Cundey, who gets maximum atmosphere from the film’s woodsy locales. He and his camera crew do a lot of skillful hand-held photography, including what appears to be some early Steadicam work, and pull off some gorgeous night exteriors. His skillful work gives the film a level of production value that it would not have otherwise (see the recent MGM-HD broadcast if you can, as it shows off his work to great effect).
Ultimately, Without Warning is more of an interesting footnote than a lost gem but chances are you’ll still want to see it if you’re into space-schlock. It’s worth a look as long as you keep your expectations in check.