Home Video Hovel: Warning Sign, by Craig Schroeder
Isolation and claustrophobia are about the hardest hitting one-two combination the horror genre can deliver. If not baked right into the premise (The Descent, The Thing, Night of the Living Dead), they’re often deployed to heighten a scene’s tension (the final act in Jaws or the hitchhiker scene in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). There’s nothing scarier than inserting a character in a tight space removed from humanity. Warning Sign, Scream Factory’s latest release, is a film with a horror-lite premise that capitalizes on the scares by playing to audiences’ fear of isolation and claustrophobia.
Sam Waterston is Cal Morse, the Sheriff of a small town in Utah and home to BioTek, a secretive agricultural research facility. Following a bio-chemical accident, a virus is unleashed that causes those infected to become murderous, id-driven versions of themselves. With connective tissue to The Thing and Day of the Dead (though not as deliciously disgusting as either of those films), Warning Sign is a lean horror-thriller that uses a single location to great effect, transforming the sterile walls of a research facility into a labyrinth of violence, unease, and paranoia. Sheriff Morse—stuck on the outside, trying to save his wife inside—must evade the bureaucratic insidiousness of Yaphet Kotto’s Major Connolly (a precursor to Kotto’s Agent Alonzo Mosely in the formative 80s action film Midnight Run), who’s tasked with containing the infection and covering up the incident.
The horrors in Warning Sign are less immediate and more existential than the films that inspired it. Whereas The Thing gets its scares from the fear of being trapped in isolation with danger, Warning Sign plays on the fears of those dangers leaking into the outside world. Director Hal Barwood has a distinct command of tone that make the scenes inside the lab—with shots that linger ominously on austere hallways cast in shadows and long shots of infected individuals as they creep closer to potential victims—feel vital and tense. However, the movie struggles to maintain the claustrophobic tension it achieves when the action moves outside the research facility. Sheriff Morse enlists the help of Dr. Dan Fairchild (the always welcomed Jeffrey DeMunn), a former doctor at the facility who knows all of its secrets, to assist in containing the virus. And if the goal of a horror film is to increase the tension until the surmounting pressure makes the viewer want to pop, these scenes outside the research facility are unnecessary pressure release valves. It would be as if Ridley Scott took regular breaks amid the action in Alien to give the audience a peak at Weyland-Yutani Board meetings.
In the war against the capitalist curation of streaming services, Scream Factory continues to be a noble soldier, offering horror fans the opportunity to see forgotten oddities and small pictures that would otherwise go unnoticed. Warning Sign is one of those movies, an exciting horror entry that under-performed at the box office over 30 years ago and whose death was ordered by the endless content assault from Netflix, Hulu, and their ilk.