Sunday, September 23, 2012

Without Warning (1980)

aka It Came Without Warning

There's trouble afoot in the rural area surrounding a lake somewhere in the USA. An alien (Kevin Peter Hall) uses the place as its hunting ground, killing people by throwing little living discs with the cutest teeth at them, and storing the corpses in a practical little shack. The fiend even gets Cameron Mitchell before the plot is getting going!

The situation escalates when a quartet of four teenagers arrives (oh look, it's a pre-sunglasses David Caruso in one of the meat roles, and he's wearing shorts in a most disturbing manner), and two of them manage to escape the alien into the loving arms of the local bar population. Because it's that sort of film, the closest the kids get to any actual help are great white hunter Joe Taylor (Jack Palance) and Vietnam vet and conspiracy theorist Fred "Sarge" Dobbs (Martin Landau). It's just too bad that Taylor is a bit too much into going mano-a-mano with his hunting brother from outer space and Sarge is so crazy he becomes convinced everyone around him - including the kids - is an alien invader in disguise.

Without Warning is a typical film by minor yet always interesting cult movie auteur Greydon Clark. I always have the impression Clark was at his best when he had the opportunity to direct comedies. At the very least, he seldom seemed very interested in the more straightforward elements of his films in other genres, and preferred to turn up the off-beat humour and the sideways weirdness in those of his movies that weren't actually supposed to be comedies.

The film at hand is no exception there, what with its numerous strange comical bits and detours into strange characters like Cameron Mitchell and his son who just can't seem to get onto the same page; I side with the son's scepticism towards using the phrase "hubba hubba" unironically - or at all - and hating books, I gotta say. That sort of thing distracts from what is supposedly the film's main thrust - you know, that thing about the alien hunter predating Predator? And yes, imaginary reader, I agree, there should be no copyright on ideas, and it's neither of the two movies who had the alien hunter idea initially anyhow.

However, most of the film's detours are so entertaining - or just plain befuddling enough - that I think it's quite impossible not to be entertained by Without Warning. After all, there are not only the strange characters (except for the teens, which are as lacking in character traits as the genre mandates, though I did like Tarah Nutter's somewhat awkward performance enough to root for her over the guy in the big headed alien suit, which surely counts for something) to fall in love with, there's also a scenery chewing competition between Jack Palance and Martin Landau. I think Landau wins that competition easily, but then a crazy Vietnam veteran conspiracy theorist is a more fruitful base for thespian overindulgence than an Ahab without a whale.

Despite Clark trying his best to distract the audience from the very basic man in a monster suit tale he and his four writers are telling, I even discovered some worthwhile moments in the more horror movie-like parts of Without Warning. Some of the sequences of the alien stalking its prey and of said prey running around in fear of it work quite well, mostly thanks to Dean Cundey's typically great photography that turns what could be rote and uninterested moody and tense.

The script also has its moments. A lot of it is just horribly silly stuff to give people a reason to run through the woods, but from time to time, like with the death of the next to last teenager, or the scene when Nutter's character suddenly comes down from an adrenaline high and remembers her dead best friend, there's a streak of self-assured grimness and a willingness to give non-characters moments of humanity on display that stands in hard contrast to the adorable mugging of Landau and Palance, and the off-beat humour.

While the alien suit is somewhat bland - and of course very unconvincing - the design and execution of the gooey little disc things we see much more often is quite great, clearly keeping with the tradition of all those lovely latex things out to suck your blood with tiny tentacle thingies and really dig in(to your heart) with the cutest little teeth. In other words, they're just as adorable as they are creepy.

It's … than one would expect might be Without Warning's catchphrase too, for it is also funnier, sillier, and grimmer than one would expect. Now, I'm not arguing this is one of the great ignored films of the cult cinema canon (a thing I'm not sure I even believe in, nor would want to exist), I'm just saying it's much more ambitious and interesting than it needed to be as a film about a guy in a monster suit chasing people through the woods.

No comments: