Director: Douglas Jackson
Scorpion Releasing

ITC’s watered-down, so-so adaptation of Dean Koontz’s WHISPERS was less than memorable as a video store perennial, but Scorpion Releasing’s “Katarina’s Nightmare Theater” DVD gives us a chance to see if it’s improved with age.

Writer Hilary Thomas (Victoria Tennant, INSEMINOID) returns home to her New York loft one night only to be attacked by Bruno Clavel (Jean LeClerq, BLOWN AWAY), who she had interviewed for a book a year ago. He calls her Catherine, threatens her with a dagger (engraved with a pentagram), and tries to rape her. She manages to get her handgun and shoots him; however, he gets back up and tells her before leaving that she cannot kill him. Hilary calls the police and reports the assault; however, a call to the sheriff of Lee Valley (where Clavel lives) provides the man with an alibi. Detective Frank (Peter MacNeill, CATHY’S CURSE) suspects that Hilary is just “some rich bitch” crying rape, but his more sympathetic partner Tony (Chris Sarandon, FRIGHT NIGHT) advises her to change her locks. When Clavel sneaks into her apartment and attacks her again, Hilary is able to stab him with his own dagger. He stumbles off, but this time she has the blood evidence to prove that she is not lying. Frank and Tony also get a report that a man was found dead five minutes away from the loft, and that his I.D. identified him as Bruno Clavel. Hilary accompanies them to the morgue and positively identifies the corpse. With the case solved, Tony asks Hilary out on a date, and they enter into a relationship.

Meanwhile, the manager of Clavel’s family apple orchard uses his influence to have Clavel’s body rushed back to Lee Valley and quickly buried without any mortuary touch-ups from Forever View Funeral Home attendant Avril (Keith Knight, MY BLOODY VALENTINE). Hilary starts receiving seemingly obscene phone calls, so Tony has her number changed. Clavel shows up again in Hilary’s apartment, once again calling her Catherine and threatening to fill her mouth with garlic and drive a stake through her heart. Since information about the discovery of vampire paraphernalia in Clavel’s van was never released to the press, Tony begins to suspect that Clavel might not be dead (while Hilary is of the opinion that Clavel has returned from the dead). Since the coroner’s assistant (Mark Camacho, SCANNER II) cannot find any autopsy report on Clavel, Tony and Hilary decide to take a trip up to Lee Valley. Avril immediately cracks and the recalcitrant town sheriff (Vlasta Vrana, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME) cooperates in the exhuming of Clavel’s grave, which turns out to be empty. Less cooperative is Clavel Orchards manager Mr. Rinehart (Eric Christmas, THE LAST TYCOON), who is more interested in protecting the family name, and fulfilling the wishes of Clavel’s late mother Catherine (who Hilary happens to strongly resemble). While searching Clavel’s office, Tony discovers a hidden bank book, and the financial records lead he and Hilary to a psychiatrist (Tom Rack, ETERNAL EVIL), an occult bookseller (Chris Britton, NIGHTWATCHING), and an ex-brothel madam (Jackie Burroughs, THE DEAD ZONE), all of whom are able to provide part of the story of Clavel’s disturbing past (and how he has risen from the dead).

Although DVD hostess Katarina Leigh Waters refers to the picture as part of Scorpion “Canadian slasher genre” line, and the film was produced by John Dunning and Andre Link – whose long-term collaborative relation netted viewers films like SHIVERS, RABID, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME and MY BLOODY VALENTINE (and its remake) – the film does not have the feel of a Canadian horror film of the earlier 1980s and the late 1970s; instead, it has the “Toronto equals New York” feel of a lot of Canadian and American-produced direct-to-video and television fare of the 1990s. Based on a novel by Dean Koontz, this R-rated adaptation largely waters down the source novel’s explicitness while retaining a few bits of unpleasantness that would never have made it to a TV adaptation of the period (the script is credited to Anita Doohan [EMBRYO], but the adaptation of Koontz’s novel is separately credited to producer Don Carmody, who had previously worked with Dunning and Link on the two aforementioned Cronenberg ventures, but went on to produce TERROR TRAIN and PORKYS, as well as recent big budget like the RESIDENT EVIL series and SILENT HILL). That said, WHISPERS really does feel like a TV movie – or at least a direct-to-video feature, as it was in the US – thanks mostly to Peter Benison’s mostly flat cinematography and Fred Mollin’s synth and sax score, but also the overall small scope from the ever-so-slightly off-kilter feel to the Americanized Canadian locations to the casting of three TV/DTV-bound leads and several Canadian film/TV regulars (including a couple that had previously appeared together in early Canadian films – including some by Cronenberg – in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the talent pool was smaller, and many who you’ll probably recognize by their faces rather than by their names).

The icy Tennant is rather miscast here as the heroine, but seems like she would be dead-on for Clavel’s mother given her casting as the treacherous mother in Jeffrey Bloom’s adaptation of V.C. Andrews’ FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC for New World. Sarandon fares somewhat better, affecting in the drunken aftermath of his partner’s killing, but he has no chemistry with Tenant, and his character serves to provide the heroine with an official means to question various characters rather than being particularly deductive himself. LeClerc – who was in the middle of a stint on the soap ALL MY CHILDREN – throws himself into his role, and it primarily because of his dedication that the audience ends up feeling some sympathy for this rapist/murderer/necrophiliac (LeClerc had previously appeared in the Canadian horror anthology THE UNCANNY the Canadian-set Italian crime thriller STRANGE SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM/BLAZING MAGNUMS, and the TV-movie THE JERK, TOO a follow-up to the movie with Steve Martin [who was married to Tenant in the late 1980s]). MacNeill seems capable of giving extra depth to his misogynistic cop character, but isn't given (his character and his death probably should have been dropped from the adaptation, as his sudden death is glossed over pretty quickly after some drunken sex which leads to post-nookie munchies rather than poignant reflection). Christmas – a very familiar face from television – pretty much phones in his underwritten role until his final scene, in which he is actually given some meaningful material to work with. Director Douglas Jackson started out as a director of documentary films in the 1960s and graduated to television in the 1980s – including an episode of FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE SERIES (which was scored by Mollin) – and features in the 1990s with WHISPERS as his debut. He worked in both features and television throughout the 1990s, but his subsequent work has been primarily TV movies (including a string of Lifetime movies with titles like MY NANNY’S SECRET, HER DAUGHTER’S SECRET, and DEAD AT 17). The film’s special make-up effects were the work of early Cronenberg collaborator Joe Blasco (SHIVERS), who was assisted by Ed French (PRIME EVIL), and the film’s climax does significantly step up the gore; however, by that time, it’s “too little, too late” (the film really should’ve upped its nasty edge much earlier considering what it did get past the MPAA in the final twenty-or-so minutes).

Despite the flat TV-movie look of this film, this was a theatrical release (although it went direct to video in the US), but the dual-layer, progressive, fullscreen master used for the transfer may be open-matte, but also slightly pushed in since Sarandon’s big hair constantly dips out of the top of the frame when zoomed in to 16:9. Although sourced from an older video master, detail is quite good throughout (it’s clear enough to make out the posters for Oswaldo de Oliveira’s AMAZON JAIL and Carlos Tobalina’s X-rated MY SINFUL LIFE on the walls of an abandoned building during a street scene), due partly to the film’s flat cinematography and the decision not to give the analog video a 16:9 bump-up as ITV have disastrously done with some of their other properties. Since the mono audio dates back from the original mastering, its Dolby Digital digitization is clear and hiss-free. Katarina Leigh Waters hosts optional bookending segments, in which she frankly informs us that viewers were not satisfied with the film as Koontz adaptation. The only extras are trailers for other features in the Katarina line such as the Canadian/British DEATH SHIP, FINAL EXAM, THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW, HUMONGOUS, NOTHING BUT THEIGHT, DOUBLE EXPOSURE, THE SURVIVOR, HUMAN EXPERIMENTS, THE INCUBUS, THE DEVIL WITHIN HER and THE PYX. As with Scorpion’s other ITV-licensed titles, this disc is coded for Region 1 only as per contract stipulation. (Eric Cotenas)