The 1980s saw a resurgence in anthology horror films with George Romero's CREEPSHOW (1982) and other films that followed in the decade, including CAT’S EYE, DEADTIME STORIES, CREEPSHOW 2, etc. Even the boob tube offered such related fantasy omnibus fare as “Tales From The Darkside,” “Amazing Stories,” a new version of “The Twilight Zone,” as well as HBO’s “Tales From the Crypt.” In the midst of all this came FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM (aka THE OFFSPRING), a low-budgeted effort directed and co-written by a very young Jeff Burr (LEATHERFACE: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III) that has more than a few things going for it, namely its impressive cast of cult icons.
In Oldfield, Tennessee, a female serial killer is executed in prison. Afterwards, journalist Bess Chandler (Susan Tyrrell, FAT CITY) visits the town’s veteran librarian/historian Julian White (Vincent Price, CRY OF THE BANSHEE), who also happens to be the uncle of the killer. He unfolds to Bess four stories of past horrors to illustrate that Oldfield has a treacherous history behind it that continues to linger. In the present day (1986) an awkward middle-aged man named Stanley Burnside (Clu Gulager, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) who tends on his needy sister (Gulager’s real-life wife Miriam Byrd-Nethery, BOUND FOR GLORY) finally gets up enough courage to ask out sexy ice princess Grace (Megan McFarland) at work. She agrees, but when she objects to his advantages, he murders her, leaving the body in the street. Still obsessed with the woman, he pays a nighttime visit to her in the funeral home, performing an act of necrophilia, with an unearthly outcome nine months later!
The next tale is set in the 1950s, as gunshot-wounded hood Jesse Hardwicke (Terry Kiser, WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S) makes it across a river to some desolate swamplands where an old hermit (Harry Caesar, EMPEROR OF THE NORTH) has existed for hundreds of years through voodoo. Jesse’s attempts to double-cross him for his supernatural secret of perpetual life, but his fruitless efforts come back to haunt him in the most horrible manner imaginable. The third yarn is set in the 1930s and has a handsome glass eater (Ron Brooks) in a carnival sideshow attempting to break away from the pack when he wants to marry his adoring sweetheart (Didi Lanier). But the performers in this act have terrible secrets, and any such ideas of desertion are punishable by the ruthless carny leader, known as the Snake Woman (Rosalind Cash, THE OMEGA MAN). The last tale is set during the end of the Civil War with a trio of cold-blooded Yankee soldiers (led by Cameron Mitchell, NIGHTMARE IN WAX) ending up at the doorstep of a ransacked mansion run entirely by orphan children who happen to be cracked (and some mutilated), worshipping someone or something known as “the magistrate,” and taking pleasure in capturing and torturing their adult visitors.
Shot on location in Georgia (with some studio bits in Hollywood) and better known under its U.S. theatrical title THE OFFSPRING (referring to an incident in the first episode), FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM was obviously done with little money, and the stories tend to run longer than they should, with some of them being predictable, but they do in fact all pack a punch with their climaxes. You also have to give the filmmakers credit not only for doing most of the segments as period pieces (not easy on a shoestring budget), but for assembling a great cast, including a decent later-day genre role for an elderly Price (complete with southern accent!) shortly before bad health got the better of him. If you want to remember the legend looking spry during the golden years of his life, this is not a bad film to look to. Aside from the aforementioned cast members, former Hammer starlet Martine Beswick (DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE) has a “special guest” bit as the executed serial killer, and you’ll also have fun spotting Lawrence Tierney, Angelo Rossitto (in a carnival barker role similar to the one he had in DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN) and noted journalist and horror film historian David Del Valle who also got casting credit. This quartet of vignettes is pretty sick and disturbing (picture a middle-aged man giving his incest-verged sister a nude ice bath or a young boy carving out a soldier’s eye to plant it on the face of a mutilated little girl), and are aided by some gruesome special effects by Rob Burman (THE THING). Giving each yarn a different time backdrop makes for somewhat effective, yet 1980s-era gothic horror. With a true horror film legend playing host to the wraparound segments, a treasure trove of great character actors in sleazy roles, and diverse stories all with a shock-value edge to them, FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM may not be a bonafide classic but its well worth a look and it appears to have improved with age.
Previously available on a no-frills DVD from MGM (in a flipper disc which offered both widescreen and fullscreen versions) and then by sub-licensor TGG Direct who paired it with THEATRE OF BLOOD as a budget release (as well as two-disc Amazon exclusive which doubled the film with TALES OF TERROR), Scream Factory/Shout! Factory picked up the title for Blu-ray, and they commissioned their own new HD transfer, with satisfying results. This is a major improvement over the DVD transfer which suffered from blemishes and unnecessary graininess. Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio in 1080p HD, the new transfer is very pleasing with a picture that’s sharp, clean and well detailed. The image is never overly dark or too bright, and nighttime scenes look perfect with appropriate grain levels. Colors are never flat, in fact they’re quite bold and really stand out, especially in the outdoor daytime scenes. The DTS-HD Master Audio stereo track is very strong throughout, with dialog always coming through nice and clear, and sound effects and music being strong as well. Optional English subtitles are also provided.
The Blu-ray features two brand new commentaries, the first on with Georgia-born writer/director Burr. Burr commences his terrific commentary by paying tribute to those involved with the film who have now passed (including his brother William who co-produced the film and helped raise the money for it). Without a moderator (and one is not needed), Burr enthusiastically and thoroughly details the making of the film, with a clear recollection of nearly every shot, including whether or not a scene was shot on a set or a location, how the actors went about playing out a specific scene and how the make-up and effects were implemented. He mentions that shooting started in the summer of 1985 (when he was just 23) using 35mm Fuji color “short ends” and that they used several sets leftover from Roger Corman productions, and that Price (directing him was one of the high points of his career) was on the set for two days and proved to be totally engaged in his scenes. Burr also talks extensively about casting and meeting Cameron Mitchell, and how the distributor was against it due to the actor’s reputation for making really bad movies! The second audio commentary has writer/producer Darin Scott and writer C. Courtney Joyner. This commentary is just as enthusiastic, with Scott and Joyner giving their fair share of anecdotes and behind-the-scenes stuff (including when Tyrell showed off her very unique artwork to a startled Price, and that the part that Ron Brooks plays was actually written for actor Andy Robinson) as well as their personal insights on the movie and it's production.
“Return To Oldfield” (1:56:23) is a comprehensive new documentary by Ballyhoo Motion Pictures (directed by Daniel Griffith) on the making of FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM (running longer than the feature itself). Including candid interviews with Burr, Scott, Joyner, Burman, Gulager (who says his wife was cast first and then he championed to be cast as well), Mike Malone (story/associate producer), Will Huston (actor/production associate), Mark Hannah (assistant director/associate producer), Allen Posten (co-production design/associate producer), Cynthia Charette (co-production designer/costume designer), Mike Scheitler (art department), Teddy Whittenbarger (art department), Ron Arnold (associate producer), Deborah Defore (extra/production associate), Jeanne Burr (Jeff’s mother and on-set cook), David Styncromb (actor) and from David Del Valle’s vintage interview with him, Cameron Mitchell. Not only is the documentary fascinating and well-produced, it has to be one of the most ambitious of its kind to be made exclusively for a Blu-ray release of an older horror flick. Among things we learn is that the main creative team were lovers of the genre (making their own Super 8 home movies early on), wanting very much to concoct their own independent horror film where their individuality could shine, agreeing that a feature with multiple stories was the way to go. The interviews are fun, with each of the segments getting its own dissection, and its nice to see such sights as behind-the-scenes videotaped footage as well as Burr promoting the film (with a casting call for extras) on local TV. For Vincent Price fans, the documentary does focus on his casting at length (it’s a two-part story!) and the director’s determination to get the legend to be in his film, and it fully details his two days on the set (and that Hazel Court and Roger Corman stopped by to make him feel more comfortable). This is fascinating stuff worth the “Price” of admission alone.
Ballyhoo Motion Pictures also gives us another elongated featurette with “A Decade Under The Innocence: Adventures in Super 8 Filmmaking” (1:17:25) which is a unique, fun piece documenting Burr’s and his childhood pals’ obsession with drive-in movies and TV’s “Shock Theater” and wanting to make their own pictures with their family home movie cameras during the 1970s in Dalton, Georgia. Footage from these short films (which you’ll be happy to hear mostly involve monsters and kids wearing vintage monster masks) are on display, as well as interviews with many of the amateur actors who appeared in and shot them. It’s interesting to see not only footage from these little films, but to hear in the interviews how competitive the kids were when making them (creating their own production company names and such). There's a 10-minuted animated still gallery with a running commentary by Burr, as he goes through the production stills, press reviews and numerous behind-the-scenes shots in a sincere, reflective dialogue. Rounding out the extras are the original theatrical trailer, as well as TV spots under THE OFFSPRING title (the title this writer saw it in the theater as back in 1987). (George R. Reis)
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