Warning Sign

March 12, 2020

warningsignHollywood’s “product glut” continues to spew forth films that, in many cases, might better have been left in some studio vault somewhere. Warning Sign, which is getting a perfunctory release from 20th Century Fox, is an exception. It’s a perfectly competent, often suspenseful piece that deserves better treatment.

Much of the suspense is built right into the basic situation. A chemical spill at a genetic-engineering laboratory kicks off a warning sign, at which point the security officer (Kathleen Quinlan), according to her instructions, promptly shuts the building, and everyone inside, off from the outside world.

This brings concern from her husband, the county sheriff (Sam Waterston), who waits nervously outside the building; it also brings a government big shot (Yaphet Kotto) who coolly tells Waterston that the genetic-engineering experiments weren’t exactly about building better strain of corn, after all. The spill released a toxic substance that was designed for use against the enemy in warfare. It turns people belligerent and finally insane – and that’s exactly what’s happening to the people trapped inside the lab.

Warning Sign divides itself between the efforts of the outsiders to get into the lab, and the scientists inside, who are growing phosphorescent sores on their faces and nattering on in lunatic fashion. This brings concern from her husband, the county sheriff (Sam Waterston), who waits nervously outside the building; it also brings a government big shot (Yaphet Kotto) who coolly tells Waterston that the genetic-engineering experiments weren’t exactly about building a better strain of corn, after all. The spill released a toxic substance that was designed for use against the enemy in warfare. It turns people belligerent and finally insane – and that’s exactly what’s happening to the people trapped inside the lab.

Quinlan is the only sane person inside, so it’s up to her to find a way to fight off the crazies and try to concoct some kind of antidote.

The film is the creation of Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, a writing-directing team whose credits include Dragonslayer, a nifty medieval movie that, released about a year before such period films became popular, sank with barely a trace (Robbins also directed a recent installment of Amazing Stories, about the magnetic kid).

Barwood and Robbins don’t have very good luck, it seems. Although Warning Sign is a well-made film, it’s being used strictly as filler. The film, while no masterpiece (much of it is admittedly juvenile, and the sci-fi/horror aspects threaten to take over for a while), deserves better. It may not rise above the level of an extended Mission: Impossible episode, but there’s something to be said for well-handled suspense – especially when you consider the quality of the competition.

First published in the Herald, August 1985

Barwood and Robbins were being pushed forward as Spielberg proteges at the time (they wrote The Sugarland Express), not without reason – my affection for Dragonslayer is well known on this site. Their big shot after Warning Sign was *batteries not included, which failed to set the world on fire. Robbins has more recently written with Guillermo del Toro. This movie sounds good, although I don’t remember it, and the credits have some classy names: Dean Cundey shot it, Henry Bumstead designed it. I am posting this as the world is in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, so it seemed apt.


Dragonslayer

December 6, 2010

First of all: groovy dragon, like it puts the Kraken in Clash of the Titans to shame. You have to wait through most of Dragonslayer to see the whole thing, and then you think it’s going to be a letdown, but no, it’s this big ole dragon, very nimble, and quite fleet of wing when it wants to be. Well, it seems the dragon terrorizes the countryside unless it’s given a virgin to roast and eat every six months or so, and the locals are—uh—fed up with this practice (yes, there is a course open to the virgins that would reclassify them and take them out of the biannual lottery, but this doesn’t seem to occur to anyone until about two-thirds of the way through) so they hire a sorcerer, Ralph Richardson, but the job quickly falls to his apprentice, who bears a disconcerting resemblance to Elton John. Kid’s got his problems, in fact that’s what the movie is about, and you probably think I’m going to rip this movie or something, given the sarcastic tone so far, but I’m not. I liked Dragonslayer; it has lapses in logic, most of which didn’t bother me (although the most irritating one is pretty dumb, like why doesn’t the hero get fried to death by the dragon’s breath? His dragonscale shield should help him, but when he’s up against rock inside a cave…that’s a lot of heat behind you), and I was disappointed not to find out a bit more about the dragon, like why it should cease its rampaging for a sure-thing virgin. Just a little suggestion of some human-like perversities might have been nice. Still, watching the thing is pretty enjoyable—I’m not about to make any proclamations about director Matthew Robbins’ mise-en-scene being anything extraordinary, but certain moments have stayed with me, like a horse crashing through a wall into an open field; or the dragon in flight pausing for a moment before it goes into a dive, the wind blowing around it seeming to hold its breath for a beat. I also enjoyed watching someone named Caitlin Clarke, and there is some pretty photography of locations that are quite gorgeous. If the filmmakers made a real mistake it’s in callously letting one of the subleads and possibly-intriguing plot complications get killed off. Chickening out of complexities is what robs the movie of any really gratifying resonance, and is why the last gag doesn’t work as well as it should. So why is it good summer entertainment? Well, it’s that dragon—that dragon rules.

First published in The Informer, July 1981.

The kid with the resemblance to Elton John was, of course, Peter MacNicol, his first movie in what would prove to be a hugely enjoyable career as a comic actor. (Mel Brooks’s Dracula—Dead and Loving It has problems, but MacNicol’s Renfield is completely in tune with the spirit of a spoof; in fact he’s what the rest of the movie should be.) I remember having a little more fun at Dragonslayer than at Raiders of the Lost Ark, as heretical as that sounds, but then, I’m a Temple of Doom man myself. Matthew Robbins had previously made Corvette Summer and was a Spielberg accomplice on a number of things; his directing life seemed to peter out after the poor *batteries not included. Caitlin Clarke didn’t land in movies much after this appealing debut (she had a good part in a couple of “Moonlighting” episodes), and died in 2004.