If there’s one thing I love about low-budget horror movies is that they definitely know how to make you wait. They don’t have the money to give you a cool looking monster for the entirety of the the movie, so they work in shadows and offscreen scares until they can finally show you want you paid to see. Some movies like Jaws are masterpieces simply because they don’t give up the ghost right away. Other movies, like 1980’s Without Warning is a 70-minute ramp-up to seeing the thing on the poster – in this case a super creepy-looking, big-headed alien being. It takes almost the entire movie to see this creature, but when you do see it, it’s quite impressive. The rest of the movie…less so.
An astonishing thing to me about some of these low-budget sci-fi and horror movies from the early 80s is just how many name actors they were able to get. They would either be people who are now famous but started out doing these kinds of things, or they were aging TV or film stars who needed a paycheck before they hit their inevitable resurgence once they got much older. In this case, we have one person who went on to become famous (David Caruso), one genre staple (Cameron Mitchell), one TV star making basically a cameo (F Troop‘s Larry Storch), and two bonafide movie stars (Jack Palance and Martin Landau), both of whom would win Oscars in the 1990s, which is pretty impressive.
Directed by Greydon Clark (director of such schlock as Final Justice and Angels’ Brigade) and “boasting” four credited screenwriters, Without Warning seems to meander its way through its short running time, introducing us to characters who get killed off pretty quickly, until an impressive if modest final act which employs a lot of atmosphere and some genuine scares. It didn’t hurt that the cinematographer on this was the great Dean Cundey, who had shot many of John Carpenter’s best films and who went on to shoot things like Back to the Future and Jurassic Park, nor did it hurt that the makeup was designed by Rick Baker. So, like, they’re pretty good.
The movie follows different groups of people living in a small forested area. The film begins with a father (Mitchell) and his grown, mustachioed son going on a hunting trip. The son clearly wants nothing to do with the trip, which is lucky because before too long both of them are attacked by tiny rotating jellyfish creatures that affix themselves to people’s skin and force sharp tentacles into their bodies to feed on them. From there, four young people: Greg, Sandy, Beth, and Tom (Christopher S. Nelson, Tarah Nutter, Lynn Theel, and David Caruso) hike in the area and do drunken young people things, despite the warnings of the truck stop owner Joe Taylor (Palance). As if THAT weren’t enough characters, Larry Storch plays a scoutmaster bringing a group of youths up for some camping. And if EVEN THAT weren’t enough, there are the locals in the town like Sarge (Landau), the shell-shocked war veteran, and Leo (Neville Brand), another guy who just hangs out in the truck stop.
Slowly but surely, people start getting attacked by these tiny Frisbee aliens and their bodies are placed in a shed. The two remaining kids, Sandy and Greg, begin having minor interactions (seen almost always in shadow) with the alien puppeteer of the little things, a 7-foot-tall humanoid who is hunting humans for food. They not only have to contend with this otherworldly menace, but also with Sarge who is certifiable and always at odds with Joe. They come to blows a couple of times, and Sarge begins to think that EVERYONE is involved with the alien, so he’s really no help at all. Handle with kid gloves.
Eventually, the movie gets kinda great, with Jack Palance stepping up to become the grizzled hero of the flick. He’s the only one who knows that they have to stop the creature right away or everyone is doomed. No running away here. He gets a plan to blow up the alien, who is impervious to bullets, even though the wounds make him spew green liquid. It lacks a bit in the excitement department, being a rather tiny area. And if the alien had just decided to walk away, the explosion wouldn’t have hurt it, but it ends up working because of Palance’s gusto performance.
The part of the alien was played by 6’9″ actor Kevin Peter Hall, who would play the titular enemy in Predator a few years later. In many ways, Without Warning is just Predator on a small scale without military guys, Palance taking the place of Schwarzenegger. I actually wouldn’t be surprised if the Thomas brothers who wrote Predator had seen this movie. But, what makes this alien interesting and different is the makeup designed by Rick Baker. It’s not some gnarly lizard-like beastie; it looks exactly like an alien from a 1950’s invasion movie, with a giant, blue head, huge eyes, and long, robe-like garments. Even though it’s not the most original design, it’s actually quite eerie and scary when it appears in the foggy forest or when a flashlight shines on it in a cabin. It’s surprisingly effective. The image of the creature, even though it only appears toward the end of the movie, was used on all the marketing and is easily the thing that would get people interested in seeing it.
While not the best or most innovative alien invasion horror film, Without Warning ends up being a lot of fun, due in no small part to the performances of Palance, Landau, and Hall as the alien. It probably won’t terrify you, in fact I’d be worried about you if it did, but it’s got a lot to recommend it and makes for a fun Saturday evening watch.
There is a new Blu-ray edition of the movie from Scream Factory, in case you’re curious to see it.