The Film: 4/5
After witnessing the execution of serial murderer Katherine White (Martine Beswick), reporter Beth Chandler (Susan Tyrell) decides to pay a nighttime visit to her uncle, Julian (Vincent Price). For decades Julian has served as the historian for the small Tennessee town of Oldfield, a job that entails keeping the darkest secrets of this sleepy Southern hamlet. Julian knows that the town is one born of pure evil, a place where the innocent and sinister alike are doomed to suffer unspeakable torments of moral and physical natures, and tonight he has four tales to prove this to the skeptical Chandler: meek paper company employee Stanley Burnside (Clu Gulager) takes his crush on alluring but aloof boss Grace (Megan McFarland) to horrible extremes and invites retribution of a kind that no one could anticipate; low-life criminal Jesse Hardwick (Terry Kiser), after suffering a fatal gunshot wound to the chest courtesy of some gangsters he double-crossed, finds himself in the care of the mysterious Felder (Harry Caesar), a swamp dweller and practitioner of voodoo who has used his mastery of the dark acts to live quite a long time; carnival performer Steven (Ron Brooks) wants nothing more than to run away with his sweetheart Amarrillis (Didi Lanier) and be happy, but the evil Snakewoman (Rosalind Cash) who runs the carnival and holds his life in her grasp has other plans for the young lovers; and finally, a small group of Union soldiers lead by the vicious Sgt. Gallen (Cameron Mitchell) are captured and imprisoned in the town of Oldfield long after the Civil War has ended by a group of children whose parents are long gone but have managed to build a society under the tutelage of the unseen "Magistrate", a society whose laws have terrifying consequences for those bold enough to break them.
When you're making an anthology film in any genre, consistency in tone and execution is the hardest area of the project to get one hundred and ten percent correct. This is the most applicable when it comes to horror anthologies; some segments can go for all-out fright, while others can take on a more playful approach to its macabre source material. Very rarely does such a film come along that gets it right all the way through; among the fleeing success stories in the past five decades, the 1972 Amicus production of Tales from the Crypt, George Romero and Stephen King's epic collaboration Creepshow, and most recently, Michael Dougherty's squeamishly entertaining Trick 'r Treat. Add to that list From a Whisper to a Scream, the 1987 film that was released theatrically and on home video and cable here in the U.S. as The Offspring. Jeff Burr, the future go-to director for cheap and efficiently made sequels in viable horror franchises such as Stepfather II and the pathetically mangled Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, demonstrated his ability to make genre films that often delivered on their promise with From a Whisper, which was his first theatrically released feature (he had made the Civil War drama Divided We Fall while a student at the University of Southern California and saw it receive some film festival screenings) and one that he had written with the help of fellow scribes C. Courtney Joyner (Prison), Darin Scott (Tales from the Hood), and Mike Malone. The movie was shot primarily in Burr's hometown of Dalton, Georgia in the sticky hot summer of 1985, with a few scenes filmed later in Los Angeles, and was top-lined by a cast comprised of seasoned veterans and locally-recruited talent.
The star of the show is unquestionable the one and only Vincent Price. Although his presence in From a Whisper is relegated to the wraparound segments that set up each fiendish tale in Burr's four-part opus, Price takes his role of Oldfield's historian and keeper of its most disturbing secrets as serious as if he was back playing Roderick Usher or Dr. Phibes. Each line of dialogue he is given vibrates with the haunted, aging soul of a man used to dealing with the damned. The four stories concocted by Burr and his co-writers that take us on a harrowing and horrifying tour of Oldfield's history of misery and defeat definitely left me not terribly surprised at how Price's character could be reduced to a feeble, damaged wreck of a person after a lifetime spent chronicling the evils of a town that curses anyone unfortunate enough to have been born there. The writers of From a Whisper set out to use their quarter of narratives to address subjects that have long been labeled taboo and hardly the kind of fodder for an gory exploitation horror flick; the first story alone features implied incest between Clu Gulager's gawky Stanley and his ailing sister Eileen (Miriam Byrd-Nethery, Gulager's real-life spouse who passed away in January 2003) and a flirtation with necrophilia that leads to a literally killer finish. If there is a recurring theme in this film, it's that the sins of the past can often have dire consequences in the future. The main characters in every story are in some way deserving of their fate, regardless of how sympathetic they might seem to the viewer. Sometimes this can be amusing, but it can also be tragic.
Each of From a Whisper's terrifying tales are laced with sinister humor and a sweaty Southern Gothic atmosphere, and true to the film's ambitions the stories are set in different time periods. Burr's direction for each segment is assured and embraces the lurid trappings of the genre, and it some cases uses those trappings to great advantage. The gruesome visual effects created by Tom Burman (The Thing) are often shocking and never shy from going for their full intended impact, although Burr thankfully doesn't allow his camera (operated by Craig Greene) to linger on these gore gags for very long. He trusts the performances of his actors and the work of his extremely talented crew to maximize their effectiveness.
There are so many horror and genre cinema legends in From a Whisper that the cast list should have made the poster sag. Price is joined in his few scenes by a wonderfully restrained Susan Tyrell (Forbidden Zone) playing the skeptic like a pro. Gulager is a marvelous sweaty creep, his famous expressive eyes concealed by a pair of fishbowl spectacles to make him look like the accountant from Hell. Best known for playing a troublesome corpse in Weekend at Bernie's and it's completely crap sequel, Terry Kiser brings bug-eyed intensity to his part as the sleazy crook Hardwick, but it's the late Harry Caesar (The Longest Yard) who outclasses Kiser with an understated performance as the mysterious, imposing Felder. Rosalind Cash (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai) dominates the third segment as the bewitching Snakewoman, full of sensual energy and a reptilian charm appropriate for her chosen profession. Another acting legend who departed this mortal coil many years ago, Cameron Mitchell (House of Bamboo) makes for a tough, brutish Union soldier whose actions will have you rooting for his cold-blooded bastard of a character to receive a slow, painful comeuppance. The child actors in the final story are all well-chosen and never come across as awkward or amateurish. Rounding out the supporting cast are brief but welcome turns from Martine Beswick (From Russia with Love) as Price's murdering niece, Lawrence Tierney (Reservoir Dogs) as a prison warden (a role originally intended for Forrest Ackerman), Terence Knox (St. Elsewhere) as Gulager's co-worker, and Angelo Rossitto (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) as a carnival barker and another unfortunate soul under the Snakewoman's command.
Shout! Factory's 1080p high-definition AVC-encoded transfer of From a Whisper to a Scream in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio surpasses the quality of the previous MGM Region 1 DVD, but not by much. Given the decade it was made and the meager amount of money Burr had to make it, it's not terribly surprising that the film has an excessive amount of grain, shuddering opticals, and the occasional trace of blurring. I don't doubt that this is the best Shout! could do with the elements that had at their disposal. The transfer really shines in the brighter scenes, with vastly improved texture, vibrant colors, and warm flesh tones, but even the scenes that take place primarily in darkness (and this being a horror film, there are plenty) look better than ever considered possible. The grain content might be overwhelming at times but for most of the movie it's kept to a pleasing minimum. Provided with the new transfer is a solid English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo soundtrack that is only marred by the rare occurence of tinny dialogue, but everything else - from the atmospheric score composed by Jim Manzie to the active sound design - is presented without disruption or major flaws. English subtitles have also been included.
The supplements created for From a Whisper's Blu-ray debut are simply astounding and comprise of some of the most honest and insightful features I have ever seen included on a release of an obscure indie horror film. They kick off with a pair of essential audio commentary tracks: on the first we have director Burr flying solo, and on the second, screenwriter Joyner partners up with his co-writer and producer Scott. If these commentaries were the only special features on this disc I would still give it my highest recommendation, because between them we are given a near-complete remembrance of the heart, soul, and painstaking effort that went into the making of this film. Few punches are pulled and there are a ton of wonderful stories and eye-opening anecdotes that make each track worthy of repeat listens.
"Return to Oldfield: Making From a Whisper to a Scream" (116 minutes), one of two brand new retrospective documentaries created for this Blu-ray by Daniel Griffith and Ballyhoo Motion Pictures, runs nearly twenty minutes longer than the movie itself and is one of the finest documentaries about an 1980's horror feature I have ever seen on home video. Fresh interviews with Burr, Scott, and Joyner provide fine accompaniment to their commentaries without suffering from much overlap in what information is shared, and they are also joined by co-writer Malone, associate producers Mark Hannah and Allen Posten, makeup effects creator Burman, and many more (including Burr's mother Jeanne, who performed the duty of the production's on-set cook). Actors Gulager and Mitchell throw in their recollections via vintage interviews, and the various recollections from the principal players intermingles with behind-the-scenes photographs, audition tapes, and footage of Burr appearing on a local talk show in Dalton, Georgia to talk about the film and put out a call for extras. "Return to Oldfield" takes us through the production, from Burr's days making films at USC to the conception of the story to the physical shoot and finally to its theatrical release and revival as a cult film. Although some of the stories don't always paint the prettiest picture of the independent production's grueling shoot and the explosive combination of filmmaking neophytes and veterans in front of and behind the camera, the interviewees look back on the experience of making From a Whisper with fond memories and warm humor. The best story is a two-parter and focuses on the arduous process Burr and his collaborators went through to secure the starring services of the legendary Price; it involves script rewrites, Burr talking with Price over the phone while the actor was on a cruise ship bound for Aruba, and a fine suit jacket that was almost ruined by a botched fake blood gag. Every single minute of this doc is priceless and it will rank near the top of the best Blu-ray supplements this year.
The second documentary, "A Decade Under the Innocence" (87 minutes), is a leaner watch and could function as a prequel of sorts to "Return to Oldfield" as it follows Burr and other budding filmmakers who made Super 8 flicks of their own in Georgia during the 1970's. It's a fun feature that shines a much-deserved spotlight on those promising talents who dreamed big and (in some cases) made those dreams come true in unexpected ways. Burr also provides an introduction and commentary for an extensive stills gallery (10 minutes) derived from his personal treasure trove of behind-the-scenes photos, press clippings, and much more. The theatrical trailer that used the original From a Whisper moniker (2 minutes) is here, along with five television spots (2 minutes) used for the U.S. release with the alternate title "The Offspring" that look sourced from a VHS recording round out the disc-based extras. The icing on this particular cake is a reversible cover sleeve that features the international poster art and the original name on one side, and the U.S. poster art and "Offspring" title on the flip.
It's always to treat to discover a film undeserving of the sordid reputation that critics and discriminating cinemagoers bestow upon it; From a Whisper to a Scream is far from being a mind-blowing classic of horror, but as an anthology of modern terror ready and willing to decimate taboos and really give its audience the goods it's an all-around winner. Jeff Burr has been an underrated director since the beginning of his career, and his first theatrically release film remains one of his finest. From a Whisper is a pure creepy delight from start to finish. Highly recommended.