Welcome to Cutting It Close, a monthly column that tackles one of the most popular subgenres in horror: slashers. Alas, there’s a catch—we won’t be discussing the likes of Freddy Krueger, Ghostface, Jason Voorhees, or Michael Myers. No, this series will only look at those slasher movies that aren’t as iconic, yet they can hold their own for various reasons. They may not be top-tier or even popular, but, as the column title suggests, they cut it close.
Slasher movie history suggests the killer must always be human. Yet the biggest slasher icons are a boogeyman who hides in your dreams and a number of death-defying serial killers whose feats are practically supernatural. If those are acceptable, then what about aliens? Can extraterrestrials hack it just as well as those mere mortals with a homicidal streak? It’s something to probe in this addition of Cutting It Close. As part of Nightmare on Film Street’s exploration of deep-space horror, we’ll be visiting Greydon Clark’s otherworldly curio Without Warning!
“Without Warning is a slasher so long as one can admit it’s an unconventional one […] boasts extensive ambiance, well-conceived practical effects in spite of a low budget, and a daunting foe.”
In Without Warning (also known as It Came Without Warning), it appears to be an average, sunny day in a small, country town. As four teenagers make their way to a local lake, a father and his son are attacked. The culprits are flying, bloodsucking organisms that resemble toothed saucers. This isn’t an isolated incident either as the teens and other residents begin to die at the hands of a mysterious entity. What on Earth is happening? Or maybe the threat isn’t of Earth origin to begin with.
Outer space has been a destination in cinema as far back as 1902 with A Trip to the Moon. However, malevolent martians and sinister E.T.’s became more common only a few decades later. In 1979, Ridley Scott’s aptly titled breakout hit Alien helped change the rules of horror. Around the same time, John Carpenter and Debra Hill paved the way for slashers by introducing the world to Halloween. With both films being incredibly popular, it only made sense to capitalize on their fame. Thus, Without Warning was born.
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Without Warning may not have a human antagonist, but the central characters are teenagers. Imperiled adolescents and young people are fundamental to these movies. While the film begins with four youthful would-be victims, that number is cut in half before the first act is even over. Jack Palance and Martin Landau, who reunited in the 1982 slasher Alone in the Dark, virtually take over as a couple of ostracized paranoids. These men enjoy meatier characterization compared to their younger costars, who are the darling, if not thinly written, Sandy (Tarah Nutter) and Greg (Christopher S. Nelson).
The likes of The Burning and Friday the 13th take place in wooded, isolated Americana. The characters in Without Warning may never be too far from a state highway, but with a persistent, malevolent alien on their tail, they might as well be stuck on Venus. Director Greydon Clark takes stock of a relatively small, rural area and turns it into an accursed killing ground. The juxtaposition of a rogue extraterrestrial hunter and a rustic township creates some surprisingly tense atmosphere. As soon as night falls and the power goes out, the once-sunlit countryside adopts a new form. Wide, open shots of the landscape are emphasized with just the right amount of fog and shadows. Interiors become airless waiting cells in anticipation of the creature’s arrival.
The similarities between this film and its contemporaries do diminish as the runtime increases. As soon as they know something evil is afoot, Sandy and Greg are constantly on the go. If they’re not trying to get the townsfolk to believe them, they’re running around aimlessly in the dark. As one can expect, this amounts to a whole bunch of nothing. The patented slasher formula has the killer springing up from time to time to do their dirty business and reminding audiences of what’s at stake. In Without Warning, we don’t see the dreaded alien until the very last act. The deaths are instead achieved by proxy—those airborne, vampiric saucers feast on any and everyone. Once you’ve seen them a few times, though, the novelty wears off.
After what can only be described as a drowsy middle act, we finally reach the main attraction. Both the hunter’s screentime and his mobility are limited, but keeping him in the dark for so long was wise. The decision leaves some mystery intact, not to mention some shock value. Suit actor Kevin Peter Hall, who later starred in Predator and Predator 2, lends his towering height. Rick Baker’s head design bears a bulbous cranium and a pair of large, black eyes that are naturally sinister in shape. It’s an impressive and timelessly menacing update of what’s deemed the classic alien.
Stepping out from behind her male peers, Sandy eventually rises to the part of final girl. It’s a role that was still being fine-tuned at the time. So often, the men in earlier slashers would swoop in, then provide assistance or do much of the heavy lifting when it came time to face the killer. So, while it’s true Sandy doesn’t finish the alien off alone, she delivers the final blow that saves the day.
Tracing Without Warning‘s inspiration is easy enough, but the end result is no empty vessel. This isn’t a thoughtless cash grab; underlining the main story is subtle commentary. The movie opens with a short-lived father and his son butting heads over their differences. In a candid moment, the father is so discernibly disappointed in his son’s tree-hugging and general wimpiness that he contemplates shooting him. Eco-horror politics of the time dictated crimes against nature were caused by man’s recklessness. The son brings this up before he, too, meets an off-screen demise. Later, conversation heard between Landau’s Sarge and everyone else echoes xenophobic sentiment, which admittedly doesn’t feel out of place in a movie all about an unwelcome visitor. Especially given the time period when aliens were a metaphor for fears of the unknown.
“Without Warning remains a positively ill-boding star in a galaxy already full of untapped terror.”
Without Warning is a slasher so long as one can admit it’s an unconventional one. Greydon Clark crafts a horror whatnot that draws from cinematic history as well as what was topical then. On top of that, the movie boasts extensive ambiance, well-conceived practical effects in spite of a low budget, and a daunting foe. There are instances where the story gets off track, and scenes feel more like padding. Knowing that, Without Warning remains a positively ill-boding star in a galaxy already full of untapped terror.