Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Without Warning (1980) dir. Greydon Clark

a.k.a. The Warning; It Came Without Warning

Logline: Some camping teens run into the middle of a small scale alien invasion. As they're stalked by a lumbering alien creature, they must band together with the eccentric townsfolk to survive. Saving the world never felt so quaint.

Crime in the Past: Not applicable.

Bodycount: 9, most covered with fun new toothy appendages.

Themes/Moral Code: Alien morality is a myth. Fornicators die, but so does a boy scout troop leader (though, curiously, the boy scouts remain unharmed-- I suppose even aliens, or director Greydon Clark, have limits).

Otherwise, thematic content is sparse. There is the presence of Martin Landau as a deranged Vietnam vet suffering from flashbacks and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which make him imagine that everyone (particularly our young heroes) are infernal body-snatched aliens. So while that's obviously a bad thing, his rampant paranoia also makes him the only person in town willing to believe and prepare for the alien invasion. (Unfortunately, the sum total of his preparation for the invasion includes walking towards the alien in disbelief and being swiftly murdered). Regardless of how Landau's nutball character is portrayed, I don't believe the film is attempting to provide some honest commentary on Vietnam vets or PTSD-- if anything, he's just an alternate menace to keep our heroes running so that the filmmakers could save up their hokey alien costume for the "explosive" conclusion.

Killer's Motivation: Our killer is an alien from the deep reaches of space, so this isn't exactly the standard psycho-sexual or inheritance-driven motive. (Though the fact that our silent alien chucks little parasitic creatures that resemble disembodied vagina dentata at his victims is certainly something). Its role is that of a one-alien vanguard with the mission of taking over a backwoods, rural town in order to set up a home base from which to stage a larger invasion of the planet by its species (who will presumably join our alien soon; really, sending one alien for the job of many seems like an oversight or a bout of overconfidence-- in any case, I'd guess our killer drew the short straw). This plan is at least what all of the characters assume their new alien pal is up to, in a scene of exposition where they confidently surmise its hypothetical motivation. Considering our alien never bothers to explain itself with its own grunts and chirps, we are forced to believe them.

Final Girl: The final girl is Sandy (Tarah Nutter). She's pretty cool, if the fairly standard virginal tomboy with a sensitive side (early on, she refrains from skinny dipping; in one later scene, during a pause in the action, a music box makes her cry). At the beginning of the film, she's dateless but quickly begins to form an innocent though developing bond with the also dateless Greg (Christopher S. Nelson)-- in one cute scene, they run around holding hands. Silly, Greg! Becoming a potential sexual partner for the final girl is rarely a smart move in these sorts of situations, and Greg soon turns up dead, a parasitic sucker latched onto his cranium. Sandy then spends the rest of the film hanging out with the rugged Taylor (Jack Palance, who for once plays a hero, but is never quite convincing as the owner of a rural car shop and gas station). Sandy proves to hold her own in the final act's hunting of the alien when she manages to re-wire a faulty dynamite charge and blow the alien back to whatever blasted galaxy he came from-- such an action takes a little more skill and know-how then lugging an axe at a killer's head. So kudos, Sandy.

The Good, the Bad, & the Cheese:  At first blush, you probably wouldn't mark Without Warning as the backwoods slasher that it is. Instead, your mind would probably land on other cheap '80s Alien takeoffs, something like Xtro (1982) or Nightbeast (1982). But what we receive is assuredly a slasher, if a somewhat bland one: a group of teens partying in the woods, eccentric locals being all creepy and suspicious, a shadowed killer lurking about and picking random characters off, the presence of a final girl. All those traits are dominant, and their usage within a science fiction context predates that other science fiction quasi-slasher, Predator (1987), by quite a few years. Not that I'd want to toot the horn of Without Warning's originality-- it's a typical slasher but with a new villain, and that's its problem. It's a by-the-numbers production, never quite surprising or exploring ground outside of the formula. The overstuffed cast may be a partial saving grace: Jack Palance, Martin Landau, Cameron Mitchell, Sue Anne Langdon, Neville Brand, Ralph Meeker, and David Caruso. Palance and Landau are the particular standouts, going all out in their manic performances (despite being well-respected and talented actors with long careers) for a film that basically amounts to a paycheck for them. (Palance is especially loveable and committed in his final scene, in which he rushes across a field towards the poor sap stuck in the alien costume while yelling, repeatedly, "ALIEN! ALIEN!"). Director Greydon Clark is responsible for one of the filthiest films I've ever seen (his Porky's-at-a-video-arcade film, Joysticks (1983)) and one of the most preposterous (his killer-cat-on-a-boat-with-George Kennedy film, Uninvited (1988)). Without Warning can't really boast the title of "most" anything, but in comparison to those two it's startlingly competent. For reasons that should be apparent in a moment, I look forward to checking out the slasher spoof Clark directed two years later, Wacko (1982), featuring the acting talents of Joe Don Baker, George Kennedy (again!), and Andrew Dice Clay. Oh, how I look forward to that one.

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