October 24th: Warning Sign (1985)
Warning Sign begins with an old-fashioned establishing main titles-montage. In a procedural sequence, we meet our Hazmat-suit clad subjects, average-looking scientists occupied with mundane yet dangerous work: the sequencing of airborne bio-chemical weapons. In a rather Spielbergian manner, a series of random events result in the infection of the team, which they unknowingly carry to the rest of the industrial plant where they work (Director Hal Barwood actually worked under Spielberg on Close Encounters). A stray test tube, a piece of electrical tape and a Polaroid camera all play their part. As a result of this random—yet totally logical—mistake, the film is absent any specific villains; accidents can happen. While the virus—synthesized by living breathing humans—is a serious threat, it is a blind, uncaring nemesis, motivated not by anything like human emotion.
Noting early the contamination, chief of security Joanie Morse (Kathleen Quinlan, perfectly cast) follows her own pre-scripted procedure and initiates the plant’s contamination protocols, shutting the plant down and sealing its workers inside. Lockdown. The agitation the workers feel is compounded by the fact that it’s mere minutes before closing time. While there are plenty of upset people inside, there are just as many gathered outside, unable to reach their quarantined family members. While Joanie Morse is in-charge inside the plant, maintaining order outside of it is the task of her husband, Sheriff Cal Morse (Sam Waterston, another fine choice).
Arriving almost instantaneously is the “U.S. Accident Containment Team,” led by Yaphet Kotto as the deliberately hard to read Major Connelly. “USACT” lies to the community (and gathering media), claiming an experimental yeast has been loosed in the lab, and may damage area crops if allowed to escape. Turns out no one in town (somewhere in Utah) actually knows what really goes on inside the walls of this typically banal industrial building. For—what I assume to be—narrative reasons, Connelly is honest with Sheriff Morse, describing genetic engineering as a “new technology,” with “certain risks.” While Warning Sign may ultimately be an apolitical film with a topical source of dramatic material, Sheriff Morse is a germaphobe skeptic cast as Connelly’s counterpoint. Connelly sees chemical warfare as the appropriate response to a perceived arms-race. “Deterrence in kind” he reasons.
While Morse’s intellectual argument with Connelly on the outside may be mere banter, if there is any argument made against chemical weaponry it is articulated inside the sealed compound. The scientists first infected (including G.W. Bailey in a dramatic role) pass out from fatigue, only to awaken agitated and irrational. While still capable of reason, they are gripped by an uncontrollable “rage” (shorthand for the effects of the virus) which eventually crosses over into remorseless savagery. As the infected become murderous, the film turns sharply to horror, whereas prior to this point it has more in common with politically-motivated thrillers such as The Andromeda Strain and The China Syndrome. Since the film has been watertight and provocative thus far, the audience is willing to follow the film into horror territory. Connelly explains that the virus is “…designed for tactical confusion”; the effects seem manageable at first, but steady escalate.
Escalation is central to Warning Sign. A level of intensity is difficult to maintain in any film, let alone to control. Remarkable then, that a film with such a low budget manages to ramp up so expertly action, tension, conflict, and audience excitement.
At this point in the film knowledge becomes a fractured force. Those on the inside need information about action outside, and those outside not only need to know the inside status, but maintain order among the increasingly agitated community members by feeding them disinformation. While Warning Sign is a serious—almost grave—film, two bits of comic relief are allowed: the few workers who made it out before the doors sealed are forced to walk around in bubble-boy type apparatus, and are the obsession of the sensationalist media; and while the plant is becoming a living hell for the other quadrants, one group of scientists and laborers hole up in a break room playing Atari and eating snacks, largely ignorant as to what’s going on outside the locked door. As a kind gesture, these characters actually manage to survive.
(Spoilers ahead—watch out!)
After losing radio contact with Joanie, Sheriff Morse decides to break into the facility. With the help of a former employee, Dan Fairchild (Jeffrey DeMunn, an actor with an incredibly expressive face), Morse enters in through an air-intake at the back. While it is slightly far-fetched, an acceptable Deus Ex-Machina allows The Morses and Fairchild to synthesize an anti-virus, which they use to save many of the infected. In an often fatalistic genre, its interesting to see such a roundly optimistic ending. By the film’s end, all zones of the facility are completely clear. At least, “for a while” as Fairchild says, making for at least a bittersweet conclusion. Sheriff Morse replies “Worry about it tomorrow.” As a “Hollywood” ending, its somewhat cheap, but still a fitting end to a highly successful formalist thriller. Warning Sign proves that despite a micro-budget, a trio of great character actors and an accomplished sense of mood and pacing can be all the necessary ingredients in the recipe for a fine film.
(The Anchor Bay DVD looks great by the way)