B-Movie Inspirations: Without Warning (1980)

I saw this movie come across Facebook in the form of a throw-back movie poster and was intrigued.  Investigating it, I found that one website claims it was sited as the inspiration, in part, for Predator.  The trailer has some amazing actors – Jack Palance, Martin Landau, Larry Storch, and Kevin Peter Hall (the man behind the Predator mask himself).  I can see how it perhaps inspired the concepts.  However, the general execution of the movie is pretty bad, despite all the talent they brought in.  It was directed by Greydon Clark, mostly known for low-budget productions in the action/horror genres.

The movie generally centers around some small backwoods town that is secretly being terrorized by an alien entity that throws flying starfish-things to subdue its targets.  Many victims fall to this hunter, including a father-son team out on a hunting trip, a cub scout leader (played by Larry Storch) and a few teenagers out for a swim on the town’s lake.  Of course, the teenagers  get a warning from the old town crazy men (Jack Palance and Martin Landau) about going to the lake, but they don’t listen.

For the most part, we follow the cliche group of teenagers as they are picked off one by one by the alien flying starfish, but you never really see who is throwing them.  Landau plays Fred ‘Sarge’ Dobbs, a war veteran (one can only assume Vietnam but they never say) who suffers from a severe case of PTSD.  Unfortunately, Sarge is the only one that (at first) claims to have seen the alien and it’s jellyfish throwing stars.  And of course, no one believes him because he is the town crazy.  On the other hand, Palance plays Joe Taylor, the local gas station owner and hunting expert.  Taylor secretly knows about the alien and has been hunting it since it arrived.

It starts out like a classic 80s slasher film and turns into “the town fights back” in the end.  Sarge and Taylor play a big part in the final story at opposite sides. Sarge, going in and out of a PTSD rage, ends up accidentally shooting the town sheriff and thinking everyone is an alien, including the college kids.  Meanwhile, Taylor stalks around suspiciously and you are not sure his motivations.  At one point, he’s gallant by taking on Landau and disarming him, while at other times, he’s creepy and suspicious in ways that only Taylor could pull off.  In the end, he does reveal that he’s hunting the alien and felt that one town crazy was enough, so he kept it quiet.

The movie may center on the teenagers playing the cliche 80s victims (and that’s about it), but Taylor and Sarge steal the real show.  They are two sides of the same coin – one man driven crazy by his past who no one believes and the other a valiant secret hero.  Both want the alien dead for their own reasons.  Both know it is up to no good (although it is never really explained to the viewer). Landau and Palance are great in this movie.

Unfortunately, the alien not only killed just about everyone in the movie but the movie itself.  Its motivations are not quite clear.  Aside from some disjointed ranting by Sarge, you don’t really know what it is.  And once you see it, you just roll your eyes.  It is basically the same old tall gray alien you see, with a big gray head and gray skin.  It really looked like something out of Star Trek!

The flying jellyfish throwing stars got pretty old, pretty quick.  They could not come up with something else?  It seemed like a largely ineffective weapon.  It would land on a victim and extend tentacles out into the victim’s skin, and exude some kind of yellowish goo.  It never really tells you what it does to the victims but it shows a few of them kicked up in the shack later, some with eyeballs removed and others with big holes in their skulls.  You are never really told what the alien is doing to the victims other than killing them.  I guess we are just supposed to say “It’s alien, you won’t understand” or something.  Not even an anal probe?

From an RPG perspective, I drew a couple of things from this movie that I really liked.

Human Accomplice: For a while there, I thought they were going to go down a dark path and have one of the men (Sarge or Taylor) an accomplice with the alien.  Why?  Well, one would have to expand on the alien itself to have that happen but it can be easily worked out.  For instance, Sarge was driven so crazy by the alien that he saw him as his commanding officer, and being controlled telepathically (gray aliens always have telepathy, don’t they).

Alien Fugitive: Things would have to be reworked but I thought maybe the true killer was Sarge or Taylor and perhaps the alien was hunting the killer (for whatever reason).  One of the men could be an alien shapeshifter that is acting as a serial killer, using the stars to paralyze his prey to later take them to the shack (in the movie) and butcher them.  The alien is actually an enforcer hunting the shapeshifter down.

Showdown at the Bar: At one point, the teenagers end up at the town bar, with a number of the locals including Sarge and Taylor.  This could have turned into a cool siege storyline where the people seal themselves in the bar and fend off all the strange things the alien would throw at them.  Apparently, the alien was using some kind of organic tech (the throwing starfish) so a GM could up with other interesting organic tech things – hunting dogs, traps, and other interesting tidbits.

Just a Scout:  Stealing from Predator 2, the GM could make the single alien just a scout and that there are a number of them in some secret lair or hidden spaceship.

By far, the alien is the weakest point of this movie – a one-trick pony with very little background or motivation.  The GM would have to really flesh it out or use some other alien in its place.  I think it would be a challenge, though, to simply use what they give you and expand off it.