There aren’t many retrospective articles on the 1980 sci-fi chiller Without Warning, so I’d better make this a good one.
In the words of the man who knows best, producer/director Greydon Clark, “Without Warning has become a world-wide cult classic.”
If further proof is required, just check out the film’s expansive message board on IMDb (Internet Movie Database). Without Warning’s got a fan-base that just won’t quit.
Without Warning is one of many popular genre films recently given the “special-edition” treatment by Scream Factory/Shout! Factory. Others include Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Motel Hell (1980), Pumpkinhead (1987), Leviathan (1989) and, in conjunction with Anchor Bay Entertainment, a mammoth Halloween collection boasting all 10 films, including Rob Zombie’s remake and sequel.
The special edition of Without Warning (see review, Page 35) includes an audio commentary by Clark and retrospective interviews with actors Christopher S. Nelson and Tarah Nutter, cinematographer Dean Cundey, makeup effects artist Greg Cannom and co-producer Daniel Grodnik, as well as promotional images and the original theatrical trailer narrated in unforgettable foreboding fashion by the great Don LaFontaine.
It’s also safe to say that the film itself has never looked better.
“Scream Factory/Shout! Factory did an excellent job with the release,” concurs Clark. “For many years I tried unsuccessfully to get a home-video release in the United States. Shout! Factory was finally able to finalize a deal with MGM, the rights’ holders. I am very happy with all the extras they were able to put on Without Warning. It was great to hear my cinematographer Dean Cundey, Greg Cannom handling special makeup, and the actors talk about making the film after all these years.”
Released in the wake of Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980), Without Warning added a new wrinkle to the “teens-in-peril” motif in that the teens weren’t fleeing an axe-wielding masked maniac, but an alien being who hunted human beings for sport. For years, observers have commented on the thematic similarities to Predator (1987), which became a profitable franchise for Twentieth Century Fox. In addition, Kevin Peter Hall, who played the title role in Predator, had previously played Without Warning’s extra-terrestrial hunter.
“We predated Predator by several years,” Clark observes.
“Kevin Peter Hall played my alien as well as the alien in Predator. Arnold Schwarzenegger mentioned in an interview that the Predator filmmakers saw a little film called Without Warning, and they liked the film and the theme. Some say that I was ripped off (but) I don’t feel ripped off. Quite the contrary, I’m proud that they liked Without Warning enough to take a look at the story from another angle. I had $150,000 for my production “¦ you could add some zeroes for theirs.”
Nelson and Nutter make up the youthful contingent in Without Warning, playing the roles of Greg and Sandy, respectively. Unlike so many screen-teens of the era, they’re likable, clean-cut kids. Their lecherous, more reckless friends “” played by a screen newcomer named David Caruso, and July’s 1975 Playboy Playmate Lynn Theel (formerly Lynn Schiller) “” soon pay the ultimate price for their fooling around, par for the course in a film such as this.
Without Warning is also distinguished by an all-star cast of veterans. Jack Palance is top-billed as Taylor, the grizzled owner of a rural gas station whose own skills as a hunter give him some advantage over the alien visitor, as well as a similar goal in adding an alien to his trophy case. Martin Landau plays a deranged Vietnam veteran who is more hindrance than help to the heroes. Familiar faces Neville Brand, Ralph Meeker, Cameron Mitchell, Sue Ane Langdon, Darby Hinton and Larry Storch also turn up. For some, the luster of their star power had dimmed, but according to Clark, their abilities or their professionalism did not.
“I’ve always admired actors who have long careers,” he says. “When you work with experienced actors it is very easy to establish rapport. The director can whisper something in their ear and they quickly see what you need for a scene and deliver. Most of my films ‘starred’ young actors and the veterans were the character actors, playing very important supporting roles.
“I’d worked with Palance, Meeker and Brand before and knew they’d be great,” Clark recalls. “I wasn’t disappointed. I had one day to film both Cameron Mitchell and Larry Storch. They were all very cooperative and brought a great deal to the picture. Casting young people is always more difficult; budget limitations generally eliminate casting young people with much experience. David Caruso came into my office for an interview. He’d never worked on a film before, but I was immediately impressed and cast him. He was very creative and eager to learn. I think his being on the set with Palance showed him how a real professional works. As I’ve said, I’ve been very lucky with my casting. Guys like Palance and Landau were not only great to work with, but were always willing to help those cast members that were less experienced. It’s been my experience that cast and crew alike have one goal “” to make the best picture we can.”
If the concept and cast weren’t novel enough, there are the alien’s lethal implements: Spinning organisms that attach themselves to human victims and, essentially, suck them dry. These implements have been described as “killer nachos,” “jellyfish with tusks” and “cow chips with fangs.”
“In the original script, the alien hunter used a bow and arrow,” Clark relates. “I wanted to make the weapon more unique. I came up with the idea that the alien would ‘throw’ some sort of live creature at his prey. As I worked out just what these creatures might look like, I liked the idea of throwing them like a Frisbee. They needed to be flat so they could fly through the air with tentacles to grab onto their prey.
“We had a very limited budget to make the film and shooting the flying creatures was not an easy task,” he continues. “This was long before computer-generated effects. The creatures were all ‘practical’ “” real objects that would fly through the air and hit their target. Lots of takes, small wires, etc., were necessary. Many of the close shots were done after principal photography was completed.”
Selling the film to a distributor seemed easy at first, but quickly became complicated.
“I made a U.S. distribution deal with American International Pictures (AIP) and within a few weeks of finalizing the deal, Filmways purchased AIP and announced they were not going to distribute any more of those AIP exploitation pictures,” Clark said.
A potentially lucrative sale to cable-TV and to CBS, which premiered Without Warning on its Late Movie, depended on the film’s theatrical exposure.
“I had to threaten them with a lawsuit to get Without Warning distributed,” Clark said. “They gave it a minimal release across the United States and the picture, much to their surprise, was well-received and did substantial box-office.” In some territories, the film was released as It Came Without Warning.
Although he only gave the film one out of four stars in his review, Robert C. Trussell of the Kansas City Star called Without Warning “a splendid example of the classic trashy drive-in horror film “¦ part of the film’s appeal is waiting to see which weathered, familiar face will appear next. Technically, the film succeeds admirably in view of its obviously limited budget.”
But Cinefantastique called the film “an exercise in soporific silliness noteworthy only for the astounding number of down-and-out actors in it.”
Clark sees it differently. “Without Warning was released around the world in the spring of 1980 and received positive critical response and strong box-office,” he says.
“Sci-fi adventure strikes a nerve with many people. It is a compelling story with some excellent performances and a unique ‘monster.’ The picture has played all over the world and received numerous awards for sci-fi films.”
Clark has a fondness for comedy, and though Without Warning is essentially played straight, there are some amusing bits of business, including Storch’s brief turn as a martinet scoutmaster who comes to a sticky end. Landau’s character is named Fred C. Dobbs “” the same as Humphrey Bogart’s fortune hunter in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) – and his repeated warnings that “We ain’t alone!” seem like a direct riff on the popular catchphrase “We are not alone” from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).
Without Warning wasn’t going to win any Academy Awards, but the film and Oscar have an unusually illustrious subsequent history: Jack Palance would win Best Supporting Actor for City Slickers (1991), followed by Martin Landau as Best Supporting Actor (playing Bela Lugosi) in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994). Rick Baker, who designed the alien head, reportedly in his kitchen, has won seven Academy Awards. Greg Cannom, who supervised the film’s makeup effects, won consecutive Oscars for Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), another for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2009) and two special technical Oscars. Cinematographer Dean Cundey, an Oscar nominee for Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), was presented with a Lifetime Achievement award by the American Society of Cinematographers earlier this year.
Another component to the film’s cult stature was its singular unavailability for so many years. Without Warning was a cable staple for years (yours truly had a VHS copy taped off Cinemax in the ’80s) but had never received a home-video release in any format until the DVD/Blu-ray. For many years it was among the most sought-after bootleg videos by collectors.
In a 2005 interview with Shock Cinema (#29), Clark said that he was gifted one such bootleg at a convention in Cleveland. In an interview with Brian Albright, Clark recounted, “I thought, this guy is proud that he’s bootlegging something that I own! I didn’t say anything to him, I just thanked him because I wanted the copy.”
Clark’s film career has been firmly ensconced in cult territory from the very beginning when he worked with Al Adamson, another low-budget auteur and cult icon, on Satan’s Sadists (1969) and Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971) as a writer and actor. Stepping behind the camera, Clark used the umbrella of exploitation to explore such social issues as racism in The Bad Bunch and Black Shampoo, and crime in Skinheads and Mad Dog Coll. He’s made comedies through horror spoofs Satan’s Cheerleaders and Wacko, as well as the video-arcade farce Joy Sticks; He’s made action thrillers with the “Charlie’s Angels” knockoff, Angels’ Brigade, and Hi-Riders and Final Justice; he’s made horror and suspense films with Out of Sight, Out of Mind and Dance Macabre; and he’s even made an “ecological musical” of sorts with The Forbidden Dance.
“I’ve always enjoyed making all types of films,” Clark says. “I like to think I don’t have a favorite genre. I like watching different types of films and take some pride in that I’ve made films in different genres.”
Looking back at Without Warning and his career, “I am both pleased and surprised,” Clark says. “When I was making these pictures, all I was thinking about was making the best possible film I could and hoping they would be successful enough to keep me working at a profession that I loved. Suddenly I looked around and a quarter of a century passed and I’d directed 20 films. How lucky I was. I consider I never worked a day in my life, I was just having fun on a movie set.”
That sense of fun is well captured in Clark’s autobiography, On the Cheap: My Life in Low-Budget Filmmaking, in which he recounts his career in concise, entertaining fashion. It’s not only a valentine to low-budget filmmaking, but also to his late wife, actress Jacqueline Cole, a steadfast partner both on- and off-screen.
“I wrote the book in a screenplay format and follow each film I made from story conception, script, pre-production, production, post-production and distribution. I’m very pleased that my book has been phenomenally well received.”
Clark’s last feature to date was 1998 Star Games with Tony Curtis. A regular on the convention circuit, Clark expresses delight that so many people remember his films so fondly. He runs his official website, through which fans can e-mail him, purchase memorabilia and read previous articles and interviews with him (including one by this author from YES! Weekly in 2010.)
Clark hasn’t officially retired because there is the possibility that his career could rise again “¦ without warning.
“I own the remake/sequel rights to Without Warning and am considering multiple offers from people who want to see a remake,” he reveals. “There is a lot of interest. Without Warning is very well known and is a liked film all over the world. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get lucky one more time.”
Greydon Clark’s official website is: www.GreydonClark.com. !