Without Warning (1980) Retrospective

A father and son go hunting in the mountains. Before they can begin hunting, which the son does not want to do anyway, they are killed by flying jellyfish-like creatures, which penetrate their skin with needle-tipped tentacles.

Some time later, four teenagers, Tom, Greg, Beth and Sandy, hike in the same area, ignoring the warnings of local truck stop owner Joe Taylor (Jack Palance). A group of Cub Scouts is also in the area; their leader (Larry Storch) is also killed by the alien creatures, while his troop runs into an unidentified humanoid and flee.


The teenagers set up camp at a lake, but after a few hours, Tom and Beth disappear. Sandy and Greg go looking for them and discover their bodies in an abandoned shack. They drive away in their van, while being attacked by one of the jellyfish which tries to get through the car’s windshield. After they get rid of it, they arrive at the truck stop. Greg tries to get help from the locals, but they do not believe him, except for Fred ‘Sarge’ Dobbs (Martin Landau), who is a mentally ill veteran. Meanwhile, Sandy encounters the humanoid and flees into the woods, where Joe Taylor finds and returns her to Greg.

While they discuss the situation, the sheriff arrives, but Sarge shoots him and begins to become more paranoid. Greg and Sandy leave with Taylor, who reveals he has been attacked by the humanoid before and secretly keeps the flying jellyfish as trophies. They search for the shack and once there, Taylor goes inside to only find the bodies of Tom, Beth and the cub scout leader. They discuss waiting for the creature when Taylor is attacked by another “jellyfish”. The young people run once again, leaving him behind as ordered. They stop a police car and get into the back seat, but find Sarge driving. He abducts them, believing them to be aliens. Greg plays along, telling the deranged man that an invasion force is on the way, thus distracting him enough to toss him aside, run away with Sandy and jump from a bridge.


They make it to a house where they find new clothing and try to relax. In the night, Sandy wakes up and goes looking for Greg, only to discover that he has been killed by the alien, who is still in the room. She flees to the basement and the creature is about to get her when Taylor arrives and saves her. On the way to the shack, he tells her about the creature: it is a tall extraterrestrial (Kevin Peter Hall) who hunts humans for sport to keep as trophies, using the living creatures as living weapons against its prey.

They wait at the shack to ambush the hunter with dynamite when Sarge shows up, almost spoiling their plan. He and Taylor fight, and Sandy is about to hit Sarge from behind when the alien arrives and kills Sarge. Taylor then shoots the creature, with little to no effect. Realizing the last chance of success, he lures it to the shack, which is then blown up by Sandy. She alone survives the horrible night.


It was Satan’s Cheerleaders (1977) co-producer Mike McFarland who came up with the idea for Without Warning (originally titled Alien Encounter, and also released as It Came… Without Warning), Clark’s 1980 sci-fi/horror effort. In a theme later picked up by Predator, Without Warning’s bubbleheaded alien comes to Earth on what amounts to a hunting expedition. After the script spent years floating around Hollywood, Clark reworked it and helped get it into production.

“McFarland hired two teams of writers to flesh out his idea, and besides myself I had another writer, Curtis Burch, come in to help revise the script when I took over,” Clark recalls; neither he nor Burch, who served as an associate producer and the film’s editor, wound up taking credit for their rewrites. “Originally, the alien hunted with a bow and arrow. I wanted it to be a little more unusual than a weapon we could have here on Earth, so I came up with the flesh eating creatures that the alien flips like a Frisbee at its victims.”

Shot in California during December. Without Warning was filmed almost exclusively at night, which Clark feels “adds tremendously to a film’s atmosphere,” but also caused its share of problems. “At night it would get down to the low 30s. That’s cold for Southern California. The entire crew wore ski masks, and with the dark and the masks, I couldn’t tell one crew member from another. My cinematographer was Dean Cundey and let’s see, this was my seventh picture. When I wanted to talk to Dean Cundey, I would have to go up to each of them and say, ‘Dean? Are you Dean?’”

“This picture was made for $150,000, including $75,000 for Palance and Landau,” he reveals. “That left me with 75 grand to shoot the picture, edit, do the post production and everything else. So when I agreed to do it under those circumstances, I realized I had to make it in three weeks.

Besides offering the obligatory don’t go-near-the-woods warning, the forceful appearances of Palance and Landau serve notice that Without Warning isn’t just going to be a movie about kids in peril. Throughout, there’s a running tension between the young and old characters, and the film ends up being at least as much about the craggy old dudes as the naive, attractive youths. This young-vs.-old dynamic is brought home in a long and impressive scene fairly early in the movie, when two of the kids stumble into a country bar in their retreat from the alien’s flying weapons, finding not only Landau and Palance inside, but also such cinema vets as Sue Ane Langdon, Neville (Eaten Alive) Brand and Old Hollywood star Ralph (Food of the Gods) Meeker in his final role.


“I had used Jack Palance in a previous picture, Angels’ Brigade (1979) and I’d used Ralph Meeker before and worked with Neville on, I guess, two pictures previous to this,” recalls Clark. “I always like collaborating with professional people like them whenever I have a chance. The more experienced an actor is, the less you have to direct him, and I’m able to work quicker because they know what I’m trying to do. My experience with performers of that caliber is that they’re eager to help the director, and very, very good to work with.”

Brand had a not-unfounded reputation as a boozer and brawler, but according to Clark, by the time the two shared a set, Brand’s problems had ameliorated. “He was an absolute sweetheart to deal with,” Clark recalls. “You know, he was the second most decorated hero, behind Audie Murphy, of WWII. He’d had some really tough times, and he’d talk about the fact that he’d had problems drinking and what have you. But when I worked with him for the first time, in 1977, he was completely sober. In fact, in the scene in the bar in Without Warning, he said, ‘Greydon, I’ll do anything you want, but you know I can’t drink.’ And I said, ‘Neville, I never have alcohol on the set. This beer is apple juice with a little bit of spritz water in it to make it foam.’

“So he was wonderful. He was a terrific guy, and always on top of his game. Again, the experienced actors know that they have a job to do. They’ve done it many, many times, and they come prepared, and it’s easier for everybody on the set.”


Landau returns the compliment. “Greydon Clark knew right where we were going with that story before we ever started shooting,” the actor says. “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.”

Landau and Palance, the two principal veterans in Without Warning’s cast, were hardly nursing-home geezers. Palance was barely past 60, and Landau had yet to turn 50. But careers age in Hollywood with unnatural speed, and at the time the picture was made, both found themselves down a few rungs from the place they had once stood on fame’s endless ladder.

“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 exploitations for a long while there,” Palance told us, five years before his 1996 death. “Me and Martin Landau and Cameron Mitchell and Neville Brand and Ralph Meeker, and good old Larry Storch, in the case of Without Warning. But I loved the experience. Maybe not so much at the time, grateful though I was just to keep on working, but certainly in the bigger perspective of having a showy, aggressive role that somebody might notice and appreciate.

“The only direction for us from Without Warning was straight up!” he added with a chuckle. “But us old mavericks, Landau and me and the boys, knew the job was dangerous when we took it-acting, I mean, trying to get away with being 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 damned career suicide.”


Clark has similar praise for Landau whose Dobbs is ultimately revealed to be a shell-shocked wacko who believes the alien has somehow taken over the kids’ bodies, à la Invasion of the Body Snatchers—and the actor returns it. “Greydon Clark is a godsend,” says Landau. “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 Lon Chaney Jr. 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 [1988] in light of that over-the-top stuff I had done for Greydon Clark. It served notice that I still had the chops.”

“I’d like to tip my hat to Marty Landau,” Clark says. “We were on a very, very short schedule, so some days we had to work really long hours. When you’re at a location you only have for a single day, a 12-hour shoot is a short one. We had some 16-, 18-, even 20-hour days.

“This was the first film I’d done with him, and that night, when we were finishing with him, I had to say, ‘Marty, you’re scheduled to come back in about six hours. It’s relatively short, and I can have you out in a couple of hours, but because of scheduling problems, I need you in first thing. You know that I’m supposed to give you a 12-hour turnaround, according to the Screen Actors Guild, but I don’t have the budget to pay you the penalty that’s required by the guild.’ And Marty said, “No problem, Greydon. I’ll just come in and sign in at the regular time.’ ”


Clark pauses. “This is a guy who’d been around. I believe he told me his first film was North by Northwest (1959), Hitchcock’s film, and of course he’d done two or three television series. Again, I’ve been so lucky in my career that all the ‘name’ actors I’ve directed have been just remarkable, and very cooperative and helpful. I know Neville Brand and Palance had a reputation for being difficult, but I found just the opposite to be true. The picture I did with Jack before Without Warning, Angel’s Brigade, had a lot of very, very young people in it, inexperienced people, and he would work with them and rehearse with them, and showed a great deal of patience.”

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Without warning_Baker

Seven-foot actor Kevin Peter Hall, who made a career of performing in monster suits, tallied his second film appearance as the barely glimpsed human-hunter. “McFarland had already contacted Rick Baker about creating the alien, and Rick had somehow found Kevin,” the director explains. Baker’s involvement ended when Clark took over the production, with Baker protégé and future Oscar-winner Greg Cannom ultimately responsible for the creature and its gruesome handiwork.


“As a producer/director, you’re responsible for everything, really, and I always like to blame somebody else if it doesn’t work and take the credit if it does,” he says with another laugh. “So I don’t want to use the word ‘created,’ but I came up with the idea for the little Frisbee creatures, in the scripting stage. The original concept was that the alien had come here and was hunting with a bow and arrow. That didn’t do it for me, so I was kicking around ideas of what I could do. I wanted to have a live creature that it hunted with, almost like sending dogs out, except that it would be a flying thing that he threw. So I started sketching one day what they might look like, and then I brought in my effects people, and we created this little guy with teeth, and hair around it, and tentacles and so forth, and I believe it works pretty well.”


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. 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.

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Without Warning (1980)
Directed by Greydon Clark
Produced by Greydon Clark
Tarah Nutter as Sandy
Christopher S. Nelson as Greg
Jack Palance as Joe Taylor
Martin Landau as Fred ‘Sarge’ Dobbs
Neville Brand as Leo
Ralph Meeker as Dave
Cameron Mitchell as Hunter
Darby Hinton as Randy
David Caruso as Tom
Lynn Thell as Beth
Sue Ane Langdon as Aggie
Larry Storch as Cub Scout Leader
Kevin Peter Hall as The Alien

Cinematography Dean Cundey

Makeup Department
Greg Cannom … special makeup
Alistair Mitchell … makeup artist

Music by
Dan Wyman


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