From a Whisper to a Scream Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
Jeff Burr’s directorial debut From a Whisper to a Scream (aka: The Offspring, 1987), isn’t a particularly obscure title and even benefited from a pretty wide home video distribution, incorporated recognizable genre stars, and it was well advertised among the horror community when released. Yet, it still remains overlooked in the annals of horror anthology history. This three-part portmanteau – a tetralogy of trepidation, if you will – features an aging Vincent Price in a wraparound segment (he reportedly despised the final product, but liked working with Burr) where he relates the shocking secret history of a small Tennessee town. The stories recall the EC Comics standard set by Amicus Studios, who released a steady stream of anthologies in the UK during the ‘60s and ‘70s. However, unlike George Romero, who fully embraced the colorful imagery of those comics when he made Creepshow (1982), Burr adopts a much darker brand of imagery; one informed by the grimy, post-slasher horror that flourished in STV horror throughout the middle ‘80s. The look was further paralleled by ugly and gruesome violence (though not so much ‘fun’ gore, like Creepshow), all anticipating HBO’s gore-heavy Tales from the Crypt television series (1989-1996).
In the first segment, a disturbed, blundering grocery store clerk Stanley Burnside (Clu Gulager), cares for his ailing sister, Eileen (Miriam Byrd-Nethery), who is romantically in love with him. Meanwhile, he has an unrequited crush on his boss, Grace (Megan McFarland). Grace agrees to a date, but the two are completely incompatible and Stanley is embarrassed to the point that he ‘accidentally’ strangles her to death. Unsatisfied, he breaks into the funeral home to consummate the relationship. Nine months later, Stanley murders Eileen too. Vengeance comes swiftly when the mutant child of his post-death relations with Grace comes home to roost. Gulager’s performance helps pull together a tightly-wound mini-epic that is way overstuffed with disparate plot elements that spool out too quickly to have any real meaning. He walks a thin line between villainous caricature and an authentically pathetic loser, so Burr does well to embrace Gulager as the central element. Though there’s little here that could be considered truly original, this segment really could’ve filled out a feature-length movie.
The second story takes place in the ‘50s and follows an unlikable loser named Jesse (Terry Kiser), who is mortally wounded while escaping hardened criminals that he was foolish enough to rip-off. He stumbles upon the bayou home of a voodoo practitioner named Felder Evans (Harry Caesar), who uses his gifts to heal Jesse’s bullet holes. Unfortunately, Jesse is too much of a deplorable scumbag to accept his good fortune and demands Felder share his magical secrets. Events quickly spiral out of his control and he ends up getting much more than he bargained for. Story two fits the anthology model a bit better than stories one or four, because it doesn’t require much of a set-up and is limited in terms of character types. Kiser and Caesar have the appropriate anti-chemistry for their small-scale battle of wills. Cynthia Kay Charette and Allen Posten’s production design sets a delectably grimy mood, which is balanced nicely against Burr’s pulpy tone. The final denouement is legitimately frightening as well.
Story three is the least memorable, but does feature a beautifully excessive and revolting gore climax. In the ‘30s, Katherine (Martine Beswick) visits a traveling circus and finds herself romantically attached to the freak show’s glass-eater, Steven (Ron Brooks). Sadly, their relationship goes against the rules of the carnival’s boss, the Snakewoman (Rosalind Cash), who rules her staff with threats of blackmail. It is revealed that she can control Steven’s ‘gift’ and curse him to painfully expel the glass and metal he eats through his skin. The set design doesn’t hold up as believably period appropriate, but kudos to Burr and co-writer C. Courtney Joyner and Darin Scott for anticipating popular television horrors, like Carnivale (2003-2005) and American Horror Story: Freak Show (2015). And, again, those effects are pretty nasty.
The final segment is the showstopper. At the end of the American Civil War, a Union regiment led by a beastly sergeant named Gallen (Cameron Mitchell) wanders into a nearly abandoned Dixie town run by the psychotic abandoned orphans of dead Confederate soldiers. The children take them hostage and torture them with gory games to appease their ‘Magistrate.’ The basic story here has a lot in common with Fritz Kiersch’s boring and overrated Children of the Corn (1984), but the Civil War time period and brief runtime doesn’t permit the narrative downtime that dampens Kiersch’s efforts. Despite the ‘80s being considered a career low-point for Mitchell, his gruff performance is a plumb mix of menace and fear, though the kids all hold their own, especially young Tommy Nowell as their leader. Again, this could’ve worked very well as a feature-length movie and would’ve benefited from a bigger budget (the total cost is estimated at $1.1 million, which had to be divided among all four entries and the wraparound – not to mention Price’s paycheck), but it is still one of my favorite entries in the Evil Kid subgenre.
MGM released a double-sided DVD of From a Whisper to a Scream with both anamorphic 1.85:1 and cropped 1.33:1 transfers. It looked just fine, as did the HD version that appeared on Netflix, which this 1.85:1, 1080p Blu-ray release appears to have been based on. Still, the image quality is very limited and I’m not sure if Scream Factory could do anything about it. First off, Burr and cinematographer Craig Greene shot a really dark movie here. Even highlights tend to be shaded pretty deeply and there are a couple of scenes that just appear completely black. Even the HD rescan has trouble separating elements in shadow and film grain, which can create some relatively mushy wide-angle images. On the other hand, close-up textures fair much better than the DVD version and grain structure is tighter by appearing more like emulsion dots and chunky, discolored areas. The color quality is brighter than SD releases, especially the cooler additions, like blues, greens, and lavenders, but still not exactly what I’d call vivid. Digital compression artifacts appear in the form of occasional edge haloes, while print damage is limited mostly to white flecks and a few lines. The frame wiggle during the slo-mo shots may have been an unavoidable problem inherent in the material.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack follows suit in that it is limited by type and source, but its uncompressed nature still makes it an improvement on the old DVD. Volume levels are consistent and clean even at high levels. Distortion rears its head briefly when people are screaming and being particularly loud, while overlapping elements are crammed into the single channel mix. Dialogue is understandable, but sometimes limited by location recording versus ADR. Jim Manzie’s music is pretty low-key, lo-fi keyboard stuff, but fills the post-slasher role well with some genuinely memorable little melodies. The southern fried guitar elements used during the second story sound especially rich here, even when they’re somewhat overwhelming the other aural elements.
MGM’s DVD was a barebones affair, including only a trailer and, initially, it was looking like Scream Factory was going to do the same. But, after they pushed back the release a bit, the announcement of the full specs was exciting.
Commentary with director/co-writer Jeff Burr – Burr is a bit of an awkward and listless mumbler, but his info is solid and, even when he rambles, he rarely loses his line of thought. His memories are surprisingly sharp, too, including minor details on seemingly every single member of the cast and crew.
Commentary with co-writer/producer Darin Scott and co-writer C. Courtney Joyner – The writers’ track is similar in its content (though direct overlap is pretty rare) and less consistent (there are more blank spots), but both commentators are charming guys and don’t take the film too seriously. Scott’s position as a co-producer gives way to some stories concerning finance and management that aren’t repeated elsewhere in the extras.
Return To Oldfield (1:56:20, HD) – An extensive behind-the-scenes documentary that goes way beyond the expectations for a relatively under-seen and under-loved little movie. It includes interviews (some of which are archival) with all the major crew members and a number of the major cast members (surviving ones), as well as footage from Burr’s early Super 8mm movies. The discussion begins with Burr’s USC film school relationships with producer/co-screenwriter Scott, co-writer Joyner, and William Burr, then moves on to the ins and outs of the exceedingly independent production of From a Whisper to a Scream – stuff like writing, taboo themes, finding funding and locations, casting, the complete filming schedule, set-design, special effects/make-up effects, working with child actors, courting Vincent Price, bad press from Forrest J. Ackerman, music, and its eventual release.
A Decade Under The Innocence: Adventures in Super 8 Filmmaking[(1:17:30) – Yet another feature-length documentary featuring Georgia filmmakers (including Burr) discussing the homemade Super 8 shorts they made as kids, teens, and in college. It’s very charming, especially the footage from these amateur, yet surprisingly amusing little productions.
Still gallery slideshow with commentary by Jeff Burr (10:20, HD)
Trailer and TV spots
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