It was a bad weekend for cinematic legends this week. As well as George A Romero, the actor Martin Landau, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Bela Lugosi in the movie Ed Wood, also sadly passed at the age of 89. Landau's acting career spanned from 1957 till 2017, just before he died, and his films covered just about every genre - including horror. One of the horror movies he had a role in was the 1980 sci-fi horror movie Without Warning.
Four teens - Tom, Beth, Greg and Sandy - are heading out into the country for a camping break. Stopping for gas at an isolated gas station, they are warned by the gas station owner to avoid the lake as people have disappeared there, but they ignore him and go there anyway. Unfortunately for them, as we have already seen, something is hunting in the area, already having killed a father and his reluctant son out hunting and a cub scout leader. It isn't long before Tom and Beth also fall victim to this strange hunter, who uses strange hexagonal webbed creatures as throwing discs to take down its prey - they attach themselves to their target with teeth and sharp tentacles, quickly draining them of blood and gradually dissolving their flesh. Greg and Sandy flee to the safety of a local bar, where they try to convince the locals of the danger out there. One of the locals is military vet Sarge, who is also somewhat unbalanced. He believes that aliens are invading the Earth, but also that they take over the bodies of their victims, and gradually comes to believe that everyone around him is an alien. Now Greg and Sandy have to deal with both the dangers of the otherworldly hunter and the deranged Sarge. Will they survive the night?
If you're thinking that Without Warning seems a little... familiar somehow, then top marks for observation. The parallels between this film and the 1987 sci-fi horror Predator are very obvious (alien hunter making trophies of humans; small group of people trapped in wilderness while the alien picks them off; the alien being mostly hidden from sight for most of the film...) to the point where the former film is usually credited as an inspiration for the latter. Not to mention the fact that in both films the alien hunter is played by Kevin Peter Hall. But Without Warning also follows the basic formula for the teen slasher that had so recently come into prominence with films like Friday the 13th, which it also strongly resembles - teens off on holiday in wilderness; hunted by unseen stalker; warned not to go to x place by a creepy old man; sole female protagonist left to fight the killer at the end... All things considered, I think Without Warning was attempting to jump onto the slasher movie boom that was just getting huge at that time, with their own quite original take on the genre.
It's certainly top-loaded with talent. As well as Martin Landau playing the unbalanced Sarge, Without Warning also has Jack Palance as gas station owner Taylor (who stops just short of saying, "It's got a death curse!" when explaining to the teens why they shouldn't go to the lake), Cameron Mitchell, Neville Brand and David Caruso making his cinematic debut (as one of the ill-fated teens). All of the above also give excellent performances, which probably lift Without Warning somewhat above all of the other early 80s slasher-come-latelys that were made around the same time. Because apart from the acting talent, the majority of the film is somewhat... lacking.
Without Warning was directed by Greydon Clark, a writer and director of many exploitation and B-movies in the 1970s and 80s. Some of his other films included Satan's Cheerleaders and Uninvited; the latter film is about a genetically altered cat that escapes from a lab and stows away on a yacht; when it feels threatened or angry, the cat has a smaller, murderous cat emerge from its mouth and attack people (and you'd better believe I'll be reviewing that movie at some point!). His films were notoriously low budget; Without Warning had a budget of $150,000, half of which went solely on Landau and Palance's salaries alone. Another $19,000 went to Rick Baker to make the alien head, which featured prominently on most of the film's marketing and isn't half-bad at all... although it does also look somewhat like the alien had just come from an appearance on the Doctor Who TV show of the time. The biggest problem that Without Warning has, however, is that its pacing is terrible. It starts off acceptably enough, showing us a couple of unfortunates getting killed by the unseen hunter, then introduces us to our protagonists and their friends. But we're only 30 minutes in before two of the teens are dead as well, and then we have about 45-50 minutes of padding - teens flee from unseen hunter; teens try to convince others of danger; teens flee some more; teens are captured by Sarge; teens escape and flee some more, and so on. We don't get a proper look at the alien (whose head cost $19k, remember) until the final ten or so minutes of the film, and even then he mainly just stands there motionless (I suspect the head was both too heavy to move well in and limited Kevin Peter Hall's vision considerably). At one point the alien is shot and out shoots what looks like apple juice in a stream you'd expect to see in a cartoon for a few seconds until he slowly puts a hand to the wound. And there is no explanation as to what the living throwing discs are - pets? Genetically modified throwing stars? They're sometimes remarkably powerful, able to kill someone in seconds... and then other times their victim can cut them off his body with little effort (then again, it is Jack Palance).
But I think I'm being somewhat unfair. Without Warning is a cheesy low-budget B-movie, sure, but it's a fun low-budget B-movie, with some remarkable links to horror and sci-fi horror history. It's definitely worth checking out, if only for the humour value of it.