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Overall Rating

Awesome: 30.77%
Worth A Look: 15.38%
Average: 0%
Pretty Bad46.15%
Total Crap: 7.69%

1 review, 7 user ratings

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Warning Sign
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by Jack Sommersby

"A Killer Germ and Deadly Dialogue"
2 stars

Anchor Bay Entertainment has released this in an OK package: a very fine visual transfer with very fine Mono audio, and a pleasing commentary track by the director. If only the film itself were worthy of such treatment!

At the beginning of Hal Barwood's Warning Sign, idyllic shots of a small, rural Utah town are intercut with shots of a crop duster descending upon a cornfield and spraying chemicals onto it. This segues into a master shot of a building called Bio-Tech, an agricultural-research facility where we see scientists in biochemical suits splicing genes in a top-secret laboratory. A problem arises: a test vial accidentally gets affixed to a scientist's suit without his knowing; while his and the others' suits are temporarily opened for a group photo, the vial falls to the floor, is stepped on and broken, exposing them to its contents. This sets off the sensors, the facility is locked down by the security officer on duty, Joanie Morse (played by Kathleen Quinlan), and the anxieties of those trapped inside are arisen to the nth degree. Joanie's sheriff husband, Cal (Sam Waterston), arrives at the scene and is perplexed by the presence of Major Connelly (Yaphet Kotto) and his government bio-response team consisting of armed soldiers. As it turns out, yeast is not what the facility is mainly interested in growing: rather, they've illegally been conducting germ-warfare experiments, despite the fact that the United States and Russia signed a treaty banning such testing in 1969. And what was in the broken vial is a five-alarm doozy: an agent that turns those infected into rage-fueled maniacs who attack the uninfected with a seething bloodlust. Joanie is the only one not infected, and Cal, with the help of a conscience-stricken ex-employee of Bio-Tech, Dr. Dan Fairchild (Jeffrey DeMunn), tries to sneak into the facility against Connelly's wishes to rescue Joanie and destroy the airborne germ before it gets loose from the facility and wipes out the entirety of mankind.

The screenplay by director Barwood and Matthew Robbins (both of whom penned the well-regarded Dragonslayer) fastens upon a fascinating story premise, where not just a deadly germ but those infected by it can kill you, so there are two active conflicts in play, which keeps the audience pleasurably on edge. And the first twenty minutes or so of the film are absolutely superb. Dean Cundey's glowing cinematography, Robert Lawrence's razor-sharp editing, Henry Bumstead's textured production design, and (especially) Craig Safan's eerie score all coalesce to make the opening sections wonderfully entertaining and consistently taut. Much of it relies on insinuation and implication to unnerve us, tactfully feeding us information rather than forcing it upon us uncouthly for bombastic effect. Robbins shows potential as a born entertainer, who knows how to interestingly fill the frame with what's needed and to leave out what's best pondered over in our imaginations, making the impending horror even more horrible in our minds. And Quinlan's performance as Joanie is essential, too: she's our eyes and ears inside the facility, and her emotional transitions are full-bodied and accessible to the audience; she's communicative enough as an actress to lucidly pull us into the character's dramatic plights, and she does so beautifully. Quinlan's long been underrated -- her work as the aspiring photographer in 1983's undervalued domestic drama Independence Day is one of the great unsung performances of the '80s -- and here she proves herself charismatic and complex and natural, never hitting so much as a single false note and maturing into a full-fledged heroine with guts and brains you can root for. She's terrific.

Unfortunately, after a remarkable opening, Warning Sign starts to go downhill. After adeptly setting things up, Barwood and Robbins seem to have run out of fruitful ideas and develop their story tediously. Rather than staying focused on the human aspects and keeping their focus, they allow everything to dwindle down to something in a horror movie, making those infected into an enemy no more original than zombies. They're faster-moving, sure, and they possess intelligence, but their essential function is still to hunt their uninfected quarry down and kill them, and while this taking inside a locked-down facility would seem to make for an unbeatable scenario, Barwood's handling of it doesn't have the verity and tautness of the opening sections. With only so-so make-up effects, the villains aren't particularly scary, and when one of them says something it's by the inane likes of "I feel rage, Joanie! Beautiful rage!". So after starting out with the quality of The China Syndrome it transforms into a second-rate piece of horror hodgepodge like a combination of Night of the Living Dead and The Andromeda Strain, minus the visceral intensity of the former and the formal intelligence of the latter. Barwood makes other mistakes. He cuts from the facility too many times, taking us out of what should be the centerpiece of the action and placing us in the midst of the lone sheriff carrying on verbal trysts with the ranking bureaucrat outside, or the sheriff engaging in too-explicit dialogue with the ex-scientist to fully explain what's been best left hinted at. And the flat-out-awful attempts at humor! One character says, "Two, four, six, eight, I don't want to radiate.". The sheriff, after rigging a butane weapon, remarks that this contraption will "flick their Bic." Have the screenwriters gone mad or just plain dumb? you wonder. After installing valid tension into the proceedings, they all but dissolve it with all this cutting up, and you're left in befuddlement over the intrusiveness of all the wisecracks.

This is indicative of a filmmaker who, while possessing a good eye for composition, doesn't have in him the greatest film sense in the world for what will and what won't play on the silver screen. Do we really need a sheriff who limps because he had polio when he was a kid just so we can know he doesn't have an affinity for germs? On that subject, was it wise to allow Waterston, usually cast in urbane talking-heads parts, to give a meek and whiny performance as the sheriff, who's so inferior to Quinlan you wish the sheriff character had just been jettisoned altogether? Of course, casting G.W. Bailey of the Police Academy movies in an important role wasn't such a hot idea, either. The great Kotto is wasted, though DeMunn is excellent and does some nifty underplaying -- again, he, rather than Waterston, commands the screen a lot better and more effortlessly. But the casting is mostly secondary to Warning Sign's problems, because it switches from a thriller to a horror film when the filmmakers have no talent for horror. It's as if Barwood and Robbins didn't trust their instincts to fill out their premise with substance, electing instead to go the derivative route in the hopes of sustaining interest, but their inability to sustain tension and boneheaded decisions to dissipate it with humor (so help me, there's even a shot of the sheriff grimacing over some overly-sugared coffee) negate such an effort. There's a fair amount of gore when the occasion arises, but it's too hokey to sate the appetites of gore-hounds and employed a bit too much to please those looking for something more intelligent, like, say, the 1977 made-for-TV movie Red Alert, which involved workers trapped inside a contaminated nuclear facility and was tension-filled and armrest-clinching fun from start to finish, where the emotional aspects of the material were given proper weight and not hindered by the characters unwisely cutting up. Warning Sign could have been scarier than ten monster films, but like 1995's Outbreak it begins so well but succumbs to imagination-deprived banality and blandness in an effort to appease hordes of popcorn munchers by rendering the intelligent factor decidedly low. When a film has this much potential yet turns out so disappointingly, it's the filmmakers who seem to be heinously infected by the germs.

This little-seen thriller came and went Labor Day weekend in 1985 like the wind. Worth watching for the technical aspects, even though to hear Safan's amazing score you'll have to uncover your ears in between the terrible dialogue.

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originally posted: 07/31/06 05:51:04
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User Comments

10/09/06 PR One of the best movies of the 80s 5 stars
5/29/06 Jeff Anderson Unpleasant to watch, but undeniably effective & well made. Waterson & Quinlan do their best 4 stars
11/02/04 PR Grosy underated movie. Top stuff here! 5 stars
6/14/04 PR Excellent movie, very underated 5 stars
12/31/02 Jack Sommersby Unintentionally hilarious, but a real guilty pleasure! 4 stars
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  02-Nov-1985 (R)
  DVD: 23-May-2006



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