Without Warning :Article on the Movie

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The Oscars had yet to anoint Jack Palance and Martin Landau, and both actors had grown to consider themselves has-beens of hard-knocks Hollywood. David Caruso had a long way to go before he could become a familiar name via the CSI network-TV franchise. Arnold Schwarzenegger, though somewhat well-established as a small-parts player, had scarcely begun to imagine the fame that the Conan and Terminator movies would bring — and never mind any big-time political ambitions.
The year was 1980. A low-budget filmmaker named Greydon Clark capitalized upon the professionalism of Palance and Landau by casting them prominently in a thriller called Without Warning — which also provide a premature break for an up-and-coming Caruso.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was working elsewhere at the time, but the subtle influence of Without Warning would rebound upon his career as it evolved into major-league stardom — several years down the line.
Flash forward to 1987, and to a backhanded example of the staying power of Without Warning: Schwarzenegger was in an outgoing movie-buff mood when I caught up with him on the press-tour circuit for John McTiernan’s Predator — a conspicuous example of the bigger studios’ tendency to appropriate the shock-value esthetics of the small-change studios.
Schwarzenegger was well along toward mainstream recognition in the wake of the Conan epics of 1982-1984, to say nothing of an unanticipated mass-audience sensation that had been touched off by James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984). But Schwarzenegger spoke with candid fondness of low-budget exploitation cinema as both a font of inspiration and his own proving ground.
“Did you ever see a little picture called Without Warning?” asked Schwarzenegger. “A hunter-from-outer-space thing. Well, that’s sort of where we’re coming from, with Predator. Even got the same actor, Kevin Peter Hall, playing the monster. Except that we have a production budget that lets us be more realistic …, you know.”
Realism is in the eye of the beholder, of course. And it might bear arguing that the perceptible realism of Greydon Clark’s Without Warning (1980), warts-and-all, is comparatively grittier and more persuasive than the regimented headlong momentum and polished pageantry that drive Predator, its vaguely acknowledged remake. (The multiple-authorship credits for Predator suggest originality, of course — and never mind that both Predator and Without Warning descend at skewed tangents from Richard Connell’s often-filmed and oftener-misappropriated short story, “The Most Dangerous Game.”)
The distinction stems largely from the rambling illusion of real-time eventfulness that lends Without Warning the pace and texture of a dream-state experience. In its brief span of new-release theatrical exposure — I caught the film, variously, at a running-on-empty drive-in theatre in rural Texas, and at a washed-up downtown picture palace in Augusta, Georgia — Without Warning seemed all the more dreamlike for its lead-role casting of tentative newcomers and accomplished veteran players unfamiliar to the intended audience.
“I loved Without Warning,” Schwarzenegger volunteered — sensing, perhaps, that he had spilled too much about the more obscure origins of his own newly arriving picture.
Much of the interest of Without Warning has to do with seven-foot-two-and-a-half Kevin Peter Hall (1955–1991), who plays the menace as ably here as he would do, likewise, in Predator. The Pennsylvania native, who sacrificed prospects in professional basketball in order to pursue a show-business career, had faced typecasting as a general-purpose giant from the moment he set foot in Hollywood. Hall held up well under the responsibility, although such assignments as Prophecy (1979), Without Warning, Harry and the Hendersons (1987) and Predator et Seq. were hardly in keeping with his music-and-comedy ambitions.
“Kevin had a way of expressing himself through whatever headpiece or costume he might be forced to wear as a condition of getting the role,” Jack Palance told me in 1991 as he coasted toward an Academy Award for his work in Ron Underwood’s City Slickers.
“And yeah, I was one of those washed-up has-beens who found himself mired in a mess of low-budget horror movies and foreign-market exploitationers, for a long while there,” Palance explained, establishing a context for his observations about Kevin Hall. “Me, and also Martin Landau and Cameron Mitchell and Neville Brand and Ralph Meeker, and good ol’ Larry Storch, in the case of Without Warning.
“I loved the experience,” Palance continued. “Maybe not so much at the time, grateful though I was just to be able to keep on working, but certainly in the bigger perspective of having a showy, aggressive role that somebody might notice and appreciate.”
Palance serves Without Warning as a garageman and hunting enthusiast named Joe Taylor, whose path crosses that of a predatory alien creature (Hall). The intruder has chosen a desolate sector of the North American continent to stalk the supposedly Most Dangerous Game, humankind.
Few of these hunted humans seem particularly dangerous — not even rough-and-tumble Cameron Mitchell, playing an impatient backwoodsman who is attempting to set a manly example of deerstalking for his reluctant son (Darby Hinton). No sooner has the son failed at the task — his dad seems angry enough to kill him — than both men find themselves under siege by a strange form of organic artillery. Fleshy, disk-like parasites come soaring in, seemingly from nowhere, and attach themselves to the father, who collapses. Director Clark exhibits the good gumption not to display the creature responsible too soon, resorting instead to a tense bit of alien’s-eye subjective frame-composition as the son cringes from an assailant.
Nor does Larry Storch, the great wise-guy comedian and lapsed network-television star, pose much of a challenge to the extraterrestrial hunter. Storch plays a Boy Scouts troopmaster in charge of a rowdy bunch of recruits, singing the praises of wilderness life while patently not believing a word of his own spiel. Storch has barely enough time to notice that his compass is malfunctioning — a tantalizing omen, though left undeveloped, of an otherworldly presence — before he falls prey.
Such once-prominent talents as Mitchell and Storch serve chiefly to preface the arrival of the young-sweethearts-in-peril contingent essential to such a film. Sandy and Greg (top-billed Tarah Nutter and Christopher S. Nelson) are traveling with friends (Lynn Theel and an as-yet-unknown David Caruso) to a lakeside retreat. A stop at Joe Taylor’s garage serves to provide the youngsters with the obligatory don’t-go-near-the-woods injunction — “lots of hunting accidents,” declares Palance — and to establish Taylor as a prolific bagger of game. The newcomers cannot help but take moral offense at the mechanic’s interest in killing wild animals. “It ain’t about the kill,” Palance grumbles, nailing the picture’s intent. “It’s about the hunt.”
Their retreat seems idyllic until Sandy and Greg find their friends absent and go searching into the forbidden woods. A line-shack in a clearing yields the bodies of their chums, and those of the Scoutmaster and the hunter and his squeamish son, all arrayed like game ready for a field-dressing. The arrival of the hunter-from-space is signaled by a new barrage of meat-platter parasites, and the youngsters make a run for higher ground. Joe Quinlivan, bound for bigger prospects as a special-effects technician, excels here in the creation of the airborne weapon-creatures, which seem descended from similar beings in two of Roger Corman’s more memorable films, It Conquered the World and Not of This Earth (1956-1957). Quinlivan’s embellishments upon the concept involve an array of flesh-piercing tendrils.
The attempt to flee dead-ends into a barroom, where Sandy and Greg find responses ranching from apprehension to apathy, along with that Who’s Who of old-timers that Palance had mentioned. (The rank of old-timer is a relative notion: Palance was barely past 60 at the time, for example, and Martin Landau had not yet hit 50. But careers age with an unnatural speed in the motion-picture racket.)
Landau’s Sarge Dobbs is a shell-shocked war veteran (and one of the movies’ earlier archetypes of the Vietnam-era emotional casualty) who seems only too willing to believe that some horror-from-beyond might be ranging at large: “I told everyone the aliens would come someday, but nobody ever listened!”
Dobbs also is willing to believe that Sandy and Greg must be alien intruders. (Palance’s Taylor is more readily inclined to believe in the prospect of a new breed of game worth hunting: “I’m huntin’ him [the alien], and he don’t know it.”) The other barflies dismiss Dobbs as a crank, anyhow, and he can only prove a subordinate menace as a consequence.
“Greydon Clark is a godsend,” Landau told me in 1988 while enjoying a big-movie comeback via Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream. “He believed in me — not just in me, I mean, but in a lot of us aging near-burnouts who’d had our day in the fickle major leagues — and he offered roles that were neither demeaning, like I’d seen happen to Junior Chaney [Lon Chaney Jr., that is] with some of those low-budget guys, nor otherwise false. Just working-actor stuff, meaty bits of business that allowed us to slice the ham as thick as we wanted.
“In fact, Francis Coppola told me that he had sought me out for Tucker in light of that over-the-top stuff I had done for Greydon Clark,” said Landau. “It served notice that I still had the chops.”
Landau’s restored career continued to escalate, with such further peaks as Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors in 1989 and Tim Burton’s Ed Wood in 1994 — Landau’s Oscar-award picture, containing his knowing impersonation of another former big-timer, Bela Lugosi, who had retrenched along Poverty Row as a dicey holding-pattern strategy. Palance, likewise, was Oscar-bound but could not have suspected as much.
“The only direction for us from Without Warning was straight up!” Palance joked during our 1991 visit. “But us old mavericks, Landau and me and the boys, knew the job was dangerous when we took it — acting, I mean, tryin’ to get away with bein’ movie stars in a land where talent is a disposable commodity and a hot temper, like I used to have in the early days, was pure career suicide.” Landau and Palance graced another memorable low-budgeter, Jack Sholder’s Alone in the Dark, two years after Without Warning.
One might argue that Landau and Palance — and the less extensively deployed Larry Storch, Cameron Mitchell, Neville Brand and (in his final role) Ralph Meeker — are too good for the circumstances of Without Warning. Certainly, such accomplished grand-manner players seem larger than the film itself, although cinematographer Dean Cundey (a favored cameraman of John Carpenter, and a talent of sustained worth to the major studios) achieves an air of dismal vastness that compensates for Greydon Clark’s often indecisive blocking and pacing and Curt Burch’s rudimentary film-cutting technique. Dan Wyman’s synth-driven musical score tends to over-emphasize the prevailing air of menace but works, overall, on a level of eeriness.
Too, Clark treats his veteran talents with a tacit respect that allows them to develop their characters more thoroughly than the simple situation requires. The scenery-gnawing extremes practiced here may be an acquired taste, but they are a delight when acquired. Neither Palance nor Landau seems afflicted with the disorientation that patently afflicts, say, Lon Chaney Jr. or J. Carrol Naish or John Carradine in their late-in-life hitches with the vaguely coherent films of Samuel M. Sherman and Al Adamson, or Bela Lugosi in his ill-advised shoots on behalf of Edward D. Wood Jr.
“No,” explained Landau, “Greydon Clark knew right where we were going with that story before we ever started shooting. Now, Jack and I might have taken things off in some unexpected directions, what with our tendency to ham it up — but we always had that anchorage that we could rely on.”
Such confident hamming also tends to point up the inexperience of the endangered-teen actors. They underplay things, as a rule, except during an argument with Palance over the morality of hunting and a barroom confrontation in which Christopher S. Nelson impulsively baits Laudau about his aliens-among-us obsession. David Caruso, whose youth-contingent character proves expendable early on, recalled in 1995: “I don’t believe any of us kids knew what we were doing, on that film. Certainly, I know that I didn’t have the proper appreciation of the opportunity to work with heavyweights like Landau and Palance.”
Kevin Peter Hall’s alien is an austere and scowling presence, its long-withheld appearance meeting all expectations.
“Kevin Hall was a delight to be around,” said Palance, “and too intelligent a talent for playin’ some monster with a one-track mind and a bad attitude. But from the moment he popped that headpiece on and started struttin’ around like he owned the place, he radiated an arrogance and a sense of menace that inspired me to imagine how a mean redneck, like I was supposed to be playing, would just naturally hate such a creature.
“That last little sequence, where I’m dartin’ around like a maniac, yellin’ fit to bust and tryin’ to dare the thing to go man-to-man with me — that was something more than acting,” continued Palance. “Now, I don’t particularly care for the so-called Method style of acting, but I was madder than hell at that alien! Just as if it was all actually happening, then and there.”
Its reputation has built steadily in recent years — surpassing the very availability of Without Warning as a DVD attraction. Its big-studio knockoff, Predator, has remained prominent on the video and cable-network market, and has inspired some very recent sequels in a crossover series with 20th Century Fox’s Alien franchise.
The absence of an authorized DVD edition for Without Warning is one of the more annoying mysteries of the marketplace. Un-authorized DVDs are another matter — a Google search can turn those up readily enough — but they hardly count as a valid substitute for the genuine article, from master-footage source-film.

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