Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Summer of Slash: Without Warning

In light of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus – and whether or not it is or isn’t a good/faithful extension to his horror/sci-fi/slasher Alien – I figured I’d kick off the Summer of Slash this year with a film obviously influenced by Scott’s seminal film. Greydon Clark’s Without Warning (also known by its more apropos drive-in title It Came Without Warning) has very much in common in with Alien (and what horror/sci-fi hybrid post-1979 didn’t) in that it plays more like a slasher than a straight science fiction film about alien invaders. As I like to point out often in these Summer of Slash entries, there are a lot of films that pre-date Friday the 13th that give us a sense of what the commercialized slasher film would eventually become. Without Warning is interesting not because it’s necessarily an effective slasher movie (or even a good sci-fi movie – it is, though, an extremely likeable, goofy lark), but because it was made around the same time Friday the 13th was (Without Warning, then it would seem, just as Friday, would owe a great deal to Bava’s Bay of Blood) and predates by seven years Predator, the film it most obviously reminds the viewer of with its alien hunter throwing killer Frisbees around for sport (an interesting link to Predator is found in Kevin Peter Hall who also plays the alien here).

The film opens with a brutish, cigar-chomping, “man’s man” type of a father as he abases his hippy son – lounging around in the Winnebago reading his damn hippy literature – for not wanting to take a gun and go hunting with him. This is written and performed in such a way that immediately makes us feel at home within the slasher subgenre (and drive-in films in general). As the two embark on their hunting trip, the father noticed a bird and tries to shoot it down; he misses – and then something strange happens: a little flying, disc-shaped glob comes storming at him and attaches itself to the father. Another disc follows and attaches itself to the son. And that’s all we get for our set up. As sci-fi/horror films go, it’s pretty basic. But it’s effective in that the filmmakers don’t show us everything within the establishing minutes of the film like most sci-fi films would; instead – and this is where Without Warning really feels like a slasher film – the film cuts to some teenagers (one of which is played by none other than David Caruso) looking to go camping by the lake before they run into crusty locals Martin Landau and Jack Palance (who gets the honor of being “that crusty old guy” whose presages of the dangers of going by the lake are ignored by the teens; this is a role that slasher fans would come to expect post-Friday the 13th).

And really from there Without Warning turns into a slasher movie complete with teens going into the woods, skinny dipping, POV from the alien as it stalks its victims, and all other kinds of wacky slasher goings-on (naturally, there’s a scene where the characters can’t find their keys to make their escape and where the same characters, later, search a house only to have a cat jump out at them for a false scare). So, all of that makes Without Warning sound not very interesting, but what I liked about the film – aside from its endearing low-budget aesthetic and cheesiness – was that all of the above happens within the first 30 minutes of the movie. One of the upsides to pre-Friday slashers (or contemporaries, which I guess we have to call this) is that the template (at least one that was proven to bring in money) for the slasher hadn’t been completely fleshed out. So what happens is that the filmmakers here don’t feel the need to add four more groups of dead teenagers and they, thankfully, don’t feel the need to drag out the inevitable. Without Warning tells its story simply; there’s something to admire about the way film paces itself and unravels its story as it quickly dispatches what we know now as the slasher template and turns into just a regular horror story about two teens trying to figure out what’s out in the woods and why it’s killing off the locals.

The goofy characters (Palance and Landau are clearly having a lot of fun here just as they did in Jack Sholder’s 1982 Alone in the Dark) and generally carefree tone help make Without Warning a lot of fun. Naturally as the teens investigate what’s out in the woods and why it killed their friends, they run across locals who may or may not know what it is their talking about (this, of course, has to lead to a scene where these city-folk wander into a backwoods tavern where they meet up with all kinds of wacky characters). Martin Landau plays a former Army sergeant slowly going crazy, so he becomes just as dangerous as the alien as he takes exceptions to these teens coming into his town (you know the score). Palance, as I stated earlier, plays the crusty old cook that knows all about the alien, yet the locals think he’s just a crazy person that believes in little green men. All of this sets up for what is 90 minutes of – gasp! – fun horror/sci-fi that doesn’t take itself too seriously; the perfect drive-in film that many of us horror fans return to because the current state of the subgenre is so dire (and takes itself way too seriously).

And make no mistake, that tone is what absolutely gets one through the movie – because if you’ve seen any of Greydon Clark’s other films (the most infamous being the Joe Don Baker cop film Final Justice which was featured on what would be one of the very best episodes of “Mystery Science Theater 3000”) you know what to expect here: drunk locals, goofy local hillbillies aplenty, lots of backwoods music playing in the background, and a generally banal way of filming the action and framing scenes. One does wonder, though, if Clark’s somehow influenced the very successful Predator (alien hunter from space; the alien throws disc-shaped “things” at its victims; the alien stores them on hooks for later use), but there isn’t much beyond those surface connections one can make couldn’t also be linked to Alien and films that came before Scott’s 1979 film. One can also assume that Clark – and his film – probably wasn’t even on the radar of the producers at Fox and Predator director John McTiernan.

Despite the film predating the glut of slasher films (one doesn’t even have to look at the release date to recognize this as boobs and blood – two staples of the slasher – are non-existent here), Without Warning has many of the charms found in later, more popular slasher films while still maintaining a certain level of sci-fi cheesiness and b-movie aesthetic and tone that inhabited the dive-ins of the time. The monster isn’t particularly scary, the thrills are pretty much non-existent, there’s very little in the way of gore or genuine scares – and yet, I kind of love this movie for its pacing and the way it doesn’t take itself too seriously and how it just kind of owns its goofiness, donning it as a badge of honor. It likely won’t be the best slasher I watch this summer, but damn if it won’t be a candidate for the one that I enjoyed the most.


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