A low-budget, campy sci-fi / horror thriller is the last place you’d expect to find a primer on acting, but that’s just what’s offered by Without Warning (1980)—out in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from Scream! Factory. This comes in addition to just about every B-movie convention you can name, and some beautiful cinematography.
Two young couples head for the woods for the weekend: Beth and Tom and their respective best friends Sandy and Greg. Despite being warned away from the area by a local, they persist in their plans, and find themselves stalked by an alien who’s come to earth to hunt humans. It kills by means of flying parasitic discs with vascular appendages that pierce their hosts and drain their blood.
After Beth and Tom fall prey to the alien, Sandy and Greg fend for themselves, with the help of local hunter Joe, who’s been stalking the creature, and the hindrance of Sarge, a Vietnam vet who’s either crazy or in thrall to the alien.
Beth (Lynn Theel) and Tom (David Caruso in very short shorts) are too frisky to stay with their friends, and their lusty abandon gets them killed—one of many horror conventions that director Greydon Clark (who also brought us Satan’s Cheerleaders and Joysticks) deploys with the affection of a practitioner who’s also a fan.
Without Warning was shot by Dean Cundey, whose work gives the film a sophistication often missing in low-budget film. Cundey had worked with Clark before, but after the success of Halloween, which he had recently photographed, he was urged not to do any more low-budget work.
He ignored that advice and shot the film anyway. In a new interview included among the release extras of Without Warning, Cundey explains that the low-budget films he worked on were a “great training ground,” where he had the freedom to experiment and learn the skills he used on the studio films (including Jurassic Park and Apollo 13) that he eventually filmed.
Most of Without Warning was shot at night, on location, challenging Cundey to light scenes with only distant groves and mountains as background. One trick he used to compensate was to set up lights behind trees in the near distance, then flood the area with fog. The effect avoids oppressive darkness behind the actors and also enhances the mood of the film. Still, it’s a shame that there aren’t more daylight scenes, because Cundey took full advantage of the setting: the first scenes in the woods have a beautiful, golden glow.
Lively, yet smooth camera work lends the film vitality. Cundey used a Steadicam for many shots; “for the time, a pretty sophisticated piece of equipment,” he says. And a heavy one, to boot—the shoot gave him a hernia, he reports.
Clark cast a number of veteran actors in the film, most notably Jack Palance (Joe) and Martin Landau (Sarge). Cast members Christopher S. Nelson (Greg) and Tarah Nutter (Sandy) offer insights into their performances.
Of Landau, Nutter says, “he had a lot vested in this and he was a classic method actor. He took it all the way to the extreme, and you had to bring back that same energy”. “His ‘CRAZED’ was in all capital letters”, says Nelson, who wonders if “having the guts to go too far in this film might have been part of what got him to a place where he could do what he did in a quiet way as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood.
Nutter, a dancer, talks about the connection she felt with Palance, a former boxer. “It was this B sci-fi movie, it was really campy and hokey, but there was this feeling especially outdoors ... it felt like we were doing this dance on this immense stage. There was no limit to how big we could get. It was a sci-fi and we could ham it up, so we did—and it was great”.
Interviews with co-writer and co-producer Daniel Grodnik and with make-up effects creator Greg Cannom round out the extras. Grodnik, who caught the film bug in a French New Wave course at the University of Minnesota, talks about the resourcefulness and fearlessness necessary to make movies in the ‘80s: “You grab a project, and you become a filmmaker”. For Without Warning, that meant a script that was eventually touched by four writers.
Cannom explains how he took over special effects duties from Rick Baker, who had created the alien head and already designed the makeup. He talks about getting to know actor Cameron Mitchell, whom he helped with a horror film he was trying to make, and about the fate of the plaster head he cast of actor Darby Hinton—used for after effects—which became part of the mine ride at Knott’s Berry Farm theme park.