Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
Jason Miller’s “The Whisperers” is a UCA-produced short film I’d very much like to do a “spoiler review” for (like with UCA shorts “Hitchhiker” and “Greed”) just so I can analyze the ending and explain why I think it works so well. But that wouldn’t be fair at this point in time, since its festival run has hardly begun yet (I saw it at a premiere screening). In a year or so, when “The Whisperers” is published online, I’ll come back, write another review, link the film, and talk about the very things I can’t talk about here. This is a spoiler-free review that goes into the quality of the film overall.
Something wicked this way comes, and when it does, you hear it whisper. “The Whisperers” is a 20-minute horror-suspense film that’s more or less in the spirit of an old episode of ‘90s family-horror TV shows such as “Goosebumps” and “Are You Afraid of the Dark,” among others (and its running time is about the same duration of one episode). Having watched those shows a lot as a kid, I rarely recall any of them that “scared” me. “The Whisperers,” on the other hand, despite its familiar setup and being technically family-friendly, actually managed to get under my skin. It works as well as any good horror film in that it has a neat sense of buildup, atmosphere, and mystery.
The film takes place sometime in the mid-90s, around Halloween, as a pair of squabbling brothers—11-year-old Nathan (Hayes Polk) and 8-year-old Zachary (Chance Caeden)—are left home alone at night in a rural country home. Zachary wants to play with Nathan, but Nathan just wants to be left alone and sees Zachary as a nuisance. But things start to get creepy when Nathan hears faint, garbled whispers coming from outside, and he realizes he and Zachary are not alone…
What’s out there? What does it want? What does it whisper? As the film continues, the whispers become a little clearer and it’s very unnerving to find out what they mean. It all leads to a payoff that (again, without giving too much away) is both disturbing and haunting. The film’s epilogue ends on a poignant note that makes the film more of a cautionary tale about sibling rivalry than what the rest of the film may have led you to believe. But if you watch it again, you’ll see that it’s been building up to not just the scares but to the message. It’s subtle, but it’s there. This is a horror film that is about something.
There are some good, effective creepy moments, some of which make good use of the film’s ’90s-culture references; my favorite scare involves the Clapper. And there is a good deal of suspense aided by moody cinematography and efficient sound design. Sometimes, the ambience of crickets chirping outside or a horror movie playing on TV inside is enough to get the job done, but other times, when Eli Bennett’s chilling music score comes in, are effective as well. If I have a problem with the film, it’s that while it has a good amount of unsettling moments, I imagined certain ways they could’ve made two or three other shots scarier.
Hayes Polk gives a good, natural performance as a pre-teenage boy who suffers the usual problems most kids that age do, especially those who have younger siblings; he sees his kid brother as an annoyance and just wants to be left alone with his thoughts, which seem to revolve around a girl he likes. As Zachary, Chance Caeden is not a very polished actor, but he is enthusiastic, and there are instances when he’s successful at being the source of Nathan’s irritation, particularly when he’s running around the house and pretending to be a superhero (he wears a cape and calls himself “Zach Attack”).
I wish I could say more about the ending because it truly is terrific in the way it brings it all around and makes “The Whisperers” not just a horror story but something more moving and profound. The saying, “Be careful what you wish for,” is the best way to describe it; it’s very well-done.
The film’s writer-director, Jason Miller, previously co-directed the collaborative short film, “Blood Brothers,” and he shows in both these films that he is fully capable of balancing ordinary setups with complex dramatic issues. I’m sure I’ll admire even more of his work in the future.
NOTE: The film is available on demand at https://www.indiereign.com/v/da5d3