Starring Vincent Price, Susan Tyrell, Clu Gulager, Terry Kiser
Directed by Jeff Burr
Distributed by The Scream Factory
Director Jeff Burr has helmed a handful of dubious cinematic achievements in the world of horror – nearly all of them sequels to popular titles – but the only horror film he’s ever directed that he feels is his and his alone would be From a Whisper to a Scream (1987 – a.k.a. The Offspring), his second feature. Personally, I’ve long had an appreciation for Burr’s work and I find him to be a genuinely affable, enthusiastic personality who is brimming with wonderful stories and good ol’ boy charm. Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990) is still my favorite sequel in that series. But on that film, and others such as Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings (1993) and The Stepfather II (1989), Burr was hampered by studio executives, looming timelines and a near-total lack of creative input or control. The only time he’s enjoyed complete freedom on a horror picture was with From a Whisper to a Scream, a horror anthology that has aged quite well in addition to featuring one of the legendary Vincent Price’s final roles.
Oldfield, TN is a town with a rich history… of evil happenings. On the eve of a murderess’ execution, a local reporter (Susan Tyrell) pays a visit to the town’s historian, Julian White (Vincent Price), who happens to be the uncle of the newly-deceased woman. When pressed by the reporter about his niece’s history of violence, White seems apathetic and resigned. According to him, evil has had a foothold in Oldfield for a very long time and this is simply par for the course. He produces an old journal of tales long forgotten and schools the reporter on the town’s malevolent past.
The first tale, set in modern day, centers on Stanley Burnside (Clu Gulager), an awkward towhead living with his sister. Stanley is desperate for a woman, so he sets his sights high and asks out his boss, Grace (Megan McFarland), who for some reason agrees. After dinner, Stanley gets grabby in the car and, after being spurned, decides the best course of action would be to choke Grace to death. But he never got laid! No matter, once Grace’s funeral concludes Stanley brings some champagne to her coffin and drives in one final nail. But come nine months later he’s in for a shock.
Our second story goes back to the ‘50s, where Jesse (Terry Kiser), a small-time scoundrel, is hiding out from some gangsters he ripped off. Jesse makes a run for it but gets shot before managing to stumble into a rowboat and sail out into the swamp. He awakens in a ramshackle cabin, owned by a genial old black man (Harry Caesar) who nurses him back to health. When the man goes out to town, Jesse, being the scumbag he is, goes through the man’s belongings looking for loot. Instead he stumbles across a life-changing secret, one that he’s foolish enough to go after.
Next up, we travel further back to the ‘30s and visit a carnival, where glass eater Steven (Ron Brooks) performs with a sideshow of freaks. He’s in love with a local girl who has a mouthful of a name, Amarilliss (Didi Lanier), but the controlling owner of the carnival, Snakewoman (Rosalind Cash), refuses to allow him to leave. Steven and Amarilliss attempt to flee, but they both soon realize that Snakewoman’s voodoo powers can reach far beyond the borders of the circus tent.
Finally, the film goes way back to the Civil War, following a trio of men – led by Union Sgt. Gallen (Cameron Mitchell) – who come across a stronghold being commandeered by a group of children. At first they don’t take the children or their code of conduct seriously, but after witnessing what happens to those who disobey Gallen and his men (or, more appropriately, what’s left of them) beg for mercy.
I’ll admit to not being so hot on Burr’s film the first time I saw it. The pacing is deliberate and slow, which I suppose is apropos given the Southern setting, and the stories come across a bit half-baked and lacking succinctness. Upon second viewing, however, my opinion has changed. I found myself drawn into each of White’s tormented tales, appreciating how the film goes further back into the town’s legacy successively to establish a long pattern of weird, evil stuff. The stories are also unremittingly grim, stinging with final moments that barely give you enough time to mentally digest what’s just occurred before moving on to the next wicked tale. Burr and his co-writers each wrote distinct stories that are amazingly strong, given that none of them had ever worked on a feature before.
Additionally impressive is the cast that has been culled, anchored by Price and featuring a few other heavy hitters who were a bit past their prime but certainly added gravitas to what was a low-budget film by filmmakers who has no solid credentials – actors such as Cameron Mitchell, Clu Gulager, Lawrence Tierney and Harry Caesar. Nobody is phoning it in here, either; these guys took their roles seriously and the film is all the better for it. Ok, maybe Mitchell isn’t giving it his all but that’s also part of his twilight years-charm. Price may have later said he regretted taking his role, having grown tired of horror pictures, but his presence adds such prestige it can be seen as invaluable.
Burr and his cohorts may have been almost entirely green in the film industry, but they weren’t in over their heads making From a Whisper to a Scream. As one of the included documentaries shows, they had all been toiling away on Super 8 home movies for years, and this was simply the next logical step. Horror is often an “easy” introductory genre for those looking to break into feature filmmaking. Combining filmmaking know-how with twisted tales, peppered with taboo subjects few outside the European or exploitation market employed, this is a horror anthology that can stand tall among the big boys such as Creepshow (1982) or Tales from the Crypt (1972).
After making it past the opening optical credits, which experience some minor telecine judder, the film’s 1.85:1 1080p image stabilizes to show off a surprisingly strong 35mm picture. What’s most impressive about this transfer are the rich, stable black levels and consistent contrast. Film grain is very much apparent, and very thick, but it never looks clumpy or noisy. The print used here was kept in great shape, with only minor flecks appearing intermittently. To be honest, little imperfections such as those help maintain a filmic appearance, reminding viewers they’re watching a vintage 35mm print, albeit digitally. Bright and sunny daylight shots obviously enjoy the greatest exhibition of details and texture, while the darker shots (which are a majority of the film) do lack crispness and appear much softer. On the major plus side, the film’s practical effects are so awesome in that ‘80s a-step-or-two-above-homemade sort of way, and most manage to retain a level of quality in the jump to HD.
Despite the back cover’s claims, the audio here is not an English DTS-HD MA 2.0 track but, rather, an English LPCM uncompressed 2.0 offering. Does this matter much? It won’t for most. Personally, the most effective aspect to the sound was during the opening credits, when a beating heart quickens in pace as names appear. Jim Manzie’s score is great work because he had to compose distinct music for each of the time periods set within the film. His compositions perfectly complement every era. That aside, this is a fairly routine track featuring a good balance for the dialogue, modest separation and an adequate sound design. Subtitles are included in English.
“Return to Oldfield: The Making of From a Whisper to a Scream” (HD) is a documentary that runs for nearly two hours. Clocking in at almost twenty minutes longer than the film itself, this exhaustive piece uncovers every last bit of information known about all aspects of the film’s production, from start through finish. Burr and his childhood buddies turned fellow filmmakers talk about their respective roles on this film. Each has a lot to contribute, detailing how Burr’s idea to do a road movie somehow turned into a horror picture, the reasoning behind doing anthology, getting Burr’s brother involved to handle business affairs, securing Vincent Price (or almost not), shooting on short ends, and a crew mutiny that threatened the picture. This is easily one of the best making-of pieces Scream Factory has produced.
“A Decade Under the Influence” (HD) is another feature-length documentary, this one running for 1 hour and 17 minutes. Although a bit before my own time, this ode to Super 8 filmmaking still feels like childhood. Burr and his filmmaking friends recount the endless home videos they shot using the relatively inexpensive Super 8 cameras and film. There are lots of clips, in full HD, and they’re really awesome to watch. This is one of the cooler features to wind up on any Blu-ray.
Writer/director Jeff Burr delivers the first audio commentary. Those who have heard a Burr track before know he’s never at a loss for words and there’s so much information racing to come out of his mouth his excitement is palpable. He’s not as redundant as you might think given how much the documentary covers, so this is still worth listening to if you want to know it all.
Next up, writer/producer Darin Scott and writer C. Courtney Joyner are on hand for a track that is no less lively than Burr’s. After discussing actress Martine Beswick’s James Bond series past, these two delve deep into talk of topics ranging from using Roger Corman’s studios to who-knew-who-in-order-to-cast-who in the movie.
A plainly named “stills gallery” is actually a massive collection of every bit of ephemera related to the film, as introduced and commentated upon by Jeff Burr. There’s some really cool stuff in here.
A theatrical trailer is listed among the features yet selecting it yielded nothing but a blank screen. The TV spots, however, worked just fine.
- Return to Oldfield: The Making of From a Whisper to a Scream
- A Decade Under the Influence
- Audio commentary with writer/director Jeff Burr
- Audio commentary with writer/producer Darin Scott and writer C. Courtney Joyner
- Stills gallery
- Theatrical trailer
- TV spots
- Reversible cover art