O: The Offspring (1987)

Letterboxd ♠ Master List

Let’s get one thing straight, right off the bat. The Offspring is the title used for this movie’s initial U.S. theatrical and video release. Thereafter it was known by its original title, From A Whisper to A Scream, which does not begin with an O, so the hell with that.

We open with a dream sequence of a woman getting out of the bath, getting into a formal gown, and then embracing a handsome man in a tuxedo (we know it’s a dream because the guy enters in a welter of fog). The woman is shocked awake because she is strapped to a gurney, and is about to be executed by lethal injection for a series of murders.

But wait a minute. The woman is Martine Beswick. The Warden is Lawrence Tierney. And the attending reporter is Susan Tyrell.

What is going on here?

Tyrell goes to visit Martine’s uncle, Vincent Price, who lives in your typical haunted house – in fact she has to enter through a narrow hall reminiscent of Tales from the Crypt, just minus the razor blades. Price is the Librarian of Oldfield, Tennessee, a town he claims warps its inhabitants and makes them do evil things… like his niece. And to prove it to the dubious Tyrell, he tells her some stories from the history of Oldfield.

Yes, this is an anthology movie. Didn’t they tell you that at the box office?

Oh, look, it’s dream scene #2.

The first story is fairly modern. Clu Gulager is Stanley Burnside, an aging, mild-mannered clerk at a trucking company who is obsessed with Grace (Megan MacFarland), a secretary there. He finally gets up the gumption to ask her for a date, he confesses her love for her, but he’s too weird and pathetic for her, so he strangles her, as one does. He also sneaks into the funeral home for his fantasy one-night stand with her. Nine months later, something crawls out of her grave and goes looking for Stanley.

The necrophilia angle is bad enough, but the creep factor is heightened by the Tennessee Williams overlay that Stanley cares for his sister, who had rheumatic fever so he has to give her ice water baths every night. This part gets really weird until Stanley decides to murder her, too.

…aaand there’s dream scene #3.

The next story goes back to the 1950s, when Jessie (Terry Kiser) rips off the wrong local crooks and gets shot in the back while running away. He manages to get to a boat and push himself into the swamp, a poor excuse for an escape being better than none. He wakes up in the cabin of Felder Evans (Harry Caesar) a long time recluse who’s frankly glad to have some company for a change. Felder nurses Jessie back to health, but Jessie, being a scumbag, goes through his things and discovers that Felder is, in fact, over 200 years old. It must be the strange chanting he does at night, and the weird potion he drinks. Jessie means to have that potion, and is willing to kill for it. And you know, that sort of thing never ends up well.

We now go back to the 1930s, and, I kid you not, Lovecraft’s Traveling Amusements, where in the freak show Ron (Steven Arden) obligingly chews broken glass, steel nuts and razor blades for the yokels. One of these yokels is Amarrillis (Didi Lanier)(and I wonder if that name isn’t a nod to Price’s wife in The Comedy of Terrors), a young lady who has fallen hard for Ron, and vice versa. But with a name like Lovecraft’s, you know something ain’t right with that carnival, and its owner, Rosalind Cash, has a hold over each of her performers. Most of them are hiding from the law, but the hold goes… deeper. And when Ron decides to leave the carnival anyway, things are going to get… bloody.

This segment, incidentally has Angelo Rossitto in his final role as a barker.

The last story goes back to the Civil War, where four Union soldiers, led by Cameron Mitchell, wander separated from their unit. They come upon three Confederate soldiers, who they slaughter (well, C.J. Cox doesn’t slaughter, he’s the nice Union soldier), only to find out in the papers the rebels were carrying that the war is over. Pike doesn’t like his fellows’ plan to continue a-killin’ and a-rapin’, and decides to go back home. For which Mitchell shoots him in the back.

The three head over to some town called Oldfield they deem “ripe for the pickin!” only to be knocked ass over teakettle by some land mines. When they come to, they are the prisoners of the remaining inhabitants of the town after the two armies clashed there: children. And given that one of Mitchell’s men tries to threaten the leader of the kids and gets knifed in the balls for his trouble, you can bet our villains are in for a bad time.

This is the most gleefully sadistic of the four stories (though the previous three certainly haven’t held back in the violence department). Mitchell will make his escape by killing the most trusting of the children, and on his way out sees the assembled kids playing a ghastly game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey, using his men’s body parts. His escape is cut off by the not-quite-dead-yet Cox, who puts a bayonet through Mitchell’s leg just to make sure he gets caught again. So Mitchell is taken to finally meet the master of the town, The Magistrate – and that is not something you want to meet.

From that grisly origin, Price says, Oldfield grew to the pit of evil it is today corrupting its inhabitants. “How do you stay away from it?” asks Tyrell. “How do you know that I did?” asks Price. These two have a surprise or two left for each other.

Now, you notice I haven’t used a whole lot of character names in the above synopsis. The stories themselves are pretty much the expected EC Comics bad-people-getting-what-they deserve outrageousness, though, it has to be admitted, with a little extra dimension than those ever attempted. No, the truly amazing thing is THAT CAST, and how the hell did Jeff Burr, who had one previous movie to his resume (the low- budget Civil War drama Divided We Fall) get that cast?

The one clue is provided by the IMDb entry, that he simply walked up to Vincent Price and asked him. Price was impressed by his confidence and agreed – though apparently he later disowned it and claimed it was misrepresented to him. That seems a bit odd coming from the guy who was in the Dr. Phibes movies and Theater of Blood, but perhaps it’s because the gore in Offspring is not campy – it is seriously disturbing and goes for the throat.

Our character actors go for the gusto in all cases – Clu Gulager in particular decides to own his bizarre character. Susan Tyrell is sadly wasted, and it looks like she knew it. She tries a southern accent for approximately two lines, and then drops it. Price’s accent is similarly spotty, but he remembers to do it more often than not.

The Offspring is a better-than-average horror movie, elevated by its cast and a generous dose of nastiness. Burr became known largely as a director of horror movie sequels: Stepfather II, Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, Pumpkinhead II, Puppet Master 4 and 5. I’ve… seen none of those, actually. But Burr shows a steady hand at the horror stuff, and hopefully he got better.

Did I mention that besides the framing story, the first and second stories start with dream scenes?

Yeah, I hope he got better.

1 Comment

  1. Saw this when it came out and yep, was surprised by the cast and interesting amount of gore you wouldn’t expect from a film with that cast in it. Well, it could have been worse (he said, thinking of Caligula fir some weird reason)…

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