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Sunday, June 9, 2013

From a Whisper to a Scream (1987) review



Vincent Price (Julian White), Susan Tyrrell (Beth Chandler), Clu Gulager (Stanley Burnside), Terry Kiser (Jesse Hardwick), Rosalind Cash (Snakewoman), Cameron Mitchell (Sgt. Gallen), Martine Beswick (Katherine White), Lawrence Tierney (Warden)

Directed by Jeff Burr

The Short Version: Before he helmed STEPFATHER 2, the third TEXAS CHAINSAW movie, the second PUMPKINHEAD picture, and a couple of useless PUPPETMASTER sequels, Jeff Burr was one of the twisted minds behind the supremely nasty, low budget anthology, FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM aka THE OFFSPRING. If you like your horror down and dirty, this is essential lowbrow entertainment bolstered by a highbrow cast. Taboos are summarily trampled and torn asunder over the course of the films bleak 100 minutes. Make some room, CREEPSHOW, this is the other great anthology of the 1980s.

A reporter travels to Oldfield, Tennessee to speak with Julian White, the town historian, whose serial killer niece is to be put to death. Upon visiting White, he reveals the town itself as evil, manifesting murder and depravity in the people who have lived there since its founding. White unravels four sordid tales of unspeakable horror born in the town of Oldfield.

Jeff Burr, the director who would end up making a glut of horror sequels in the 1990s, raised some eyebrows with his first film -- a startlingly sick and twisted anthology movie. Some of those eyebrows were among the cast; one of which was star Vincent Price. Burr and the producer approached the horror icon at his home about appearing in the film. Seeming reluctant to do so at the time, they left the script with him. Having shot the four segments in mid 1985 and into the early months of 1986, Price eventually agreed to be a part of the wraparound portion of the production. Later on, he came to regret having participated because of the disturbing, and frequently sickening content of the movie. To read more on this story, and from the words of Jeff Burr himself, click HERE.

Reportedly, Price was trying to distance himself from horror films at this time; and I suppose a genre movie of this type wasn't preferable as the last such picture to feature him among the cast. On a more upbeat note of Price's involvement, this was a reunion of sorts for Vincent and Roger Corman, who directed Price in a classic series of movies based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Burr's movie was shot at Corman's studio, and the former New World Pictures owner visited Price on the set. Price was also visited by his MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964) co-star, Hazel Court. The pictures of which can be seen at the CAC Facebook page HERE and HERE.

For whatever reason, the picture was later retitled THE OFFSPRING -- at least that's the title the film was advertised with when I saw the commercial in 1987. That moniker is rather curious since it is literally associated with the first tale. However, one could make the assumption that the title also refers to the offspring of evil that dwells within the town of Oldfield -- the subject of the movie.

Under either name, Jeff Burr's first movie is arguably one of the best horror films of the 1980s. By 1987, originality in the genre had all but evaporated. Ironically, the best genre pictures of that year were overlooked theatrically and became cult films of high repute with fans. Dominated by a lot of sequels and lackluster productions from horrors big names, FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM was a daring, taboo-trashing breath of fresh air. It's a rare type of anthology in that all the stories are strong and varied in their presentation. They do share a kindred thread with one another in that each story has something uniquely grotesque about it. The grim subject matter runs the gamut of necrophilia, cannibalism, incest, voodooism, deformities, and child murder.

The first segment gets things off to an unsettling start in detailing a disturbed man and his lust for his female boss, Grace (Megan McFarland). Right from the opening moments, we see that Stanley Burnside (a chilling performance from Gulager) is most definitely off his rocker. He lives alone with his sickly sister (where the hint of an incestuous relationship becomes glaringly obvious as the show carries on) and begins to feel a heavy sexual attraction towards his employer that leads to nasty consequences. 

Without revealing too much, let's just say that Stanley has a penchant for loving the dead. The sting in the tail sees Stanley getting his just desserts from beyond the grave in a literal, gruesome manifestation of the films theatrical release title.

Clu Gulager had quickly become something of a horror icon after his raucously hilarious performance in THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985). He appeared in a few other horror films from around this time like NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2 (1985) and HUNTER'S BLOOD (1986), but nothing quite like his role as psychopath Stanley Burnside. We're talking Joe Spinell level of maniac here, or a close approximation. Gulager's character possesses the same sort of mild-mannered exterior till something makes him snap. It's a fascinating, and scary performance with a touch of black humor about him. He wrings a great deal out of it within the approximately 20 minutes allotted the entry.

The second story continues the strong air of dread laid down by the previous tale. But whereas that one was set in modern times, this one jumps back in time to the 1950s. 

Jesse Hardwick (Terry Kiser) has apparently ripped off some gangsters and a liaison of his has betrayed him. During a chase, Jesse is shot in the back and ends up in a swamp near death. Later rescued by a raspy voiced elderly man, Jesse learns this old codger possesses the secret to eternal life and will do anything to get it for himself.

To say this episode is grim would be an understatement considering the strong aura of revulsion running through nearly every frame of this movie. What makes this tale such a downer is the double twist at the end -- a bit of cruel irony and the resulting poetic justice that itself is so sadistic, one can't help but feel sorrow for Jesse Hardwick; even if he deserves it. The man is selfish, heartless and uncaring for anyone around him, but the retribution meted out on him is extraordinarily merciless.

Terry Kiser played another slimeball in FRIDAY THE 13TH 7: THE NEW BLOOD (1987) and also Bernie the dead guy in the WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S (1989 and 1993) films.

Story three as told to Beth Chandler (Tyrrell) via Julian White's (Price) vast library of murder cases goes further back in time to the 1930s. The setting is a traveling carnival run by a wide-eyed Snakewoman (Cash). A local girl falls in love with Arden (Ron Brooks), an attraction at the carnival who eats glass and metal pieces for a living. She wants to be with him, but for reasons he refuses to reveal, he cannot leave the carnival. We soon learn that the Snakewoman (she's not given a proper name, but she's played in frightfully maniacal fashion by Rosalind Cash) runs not only the show, but also the lives of those bound to it. She uses voodoo spells to keep her slaves in line, and to keep them from escaping. 

Unfortunately for him, Arden realizes the touch of  a woman is too good to pass up, so he flees the carnival with his new flame. Even more disastrous are the consequences Arden brings on himself and his girlfriend. There is no happy ending, of course, and no justice for evil. 

Fans may remember Rosalind Cash from THE OMEGA MAN (1971), DR. BLACK AND MR. HYDE (1976), and TALES FROM THE HOOD (1995) -- her last picture to see release before her death in 1995. 

One of the major midget stars of Tod Browning's FREAKS (1932), Angelo Rossitto, has a role in this segment. Rossitto had a long career and genre fans will surely recognize him from such pictures as DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971) and MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME (1985).

The fourth and final tale in this quartet of queasiness details the founding of Oldfield at the end of the Civil War. Sergeant Gallen (Cameron Mitchell) and his few remaining men are captured and taken to a strange commune of children in the woods. There is a distinct absence of adults and many of the kids are crippled or deformed; a result of the brutality and bloodshed of the war. The captured soldiers soon learn the terrible secret these kids are hiding.

This last story is the best of the bunch. The repellant subject matter and ghastly imagery is poured on thick in what amounts to a mixture of Lord of the Flies and CHILDREN OF THE CORN (1984). This is generally the one segment people seem to remember the most. The gore and prosthetics are plentiful when used to accentuate all the mutilations, dead kids, aberrant and abhorrent behavior. Keep an eye out for a shocking version of 'Pin the Tail on the Donkey'!

Cameron Mitchell is the big star of this segment. Well, big star among horror and exploitation aficionados. He was famous for his western roles, but in later years, he became a horror and Drive In movie staple both here and abroad. There are too many to list, but it's safe to say, if you're reading this, you've surely seen Cameron Mitchell in more than a few genre pictures.

The wraparound segment delivers one final shock to the system, but in the wake of everything that's come before it, it's far less grisly in tone. Compared with Vincent Price's other movies, it's understandable why he'd be upset over appearing in it. Apparently he never read the script, or simply glossed over it. Even so, he'd done some particularly nasty movies in his career, at least they were at the time -- WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968) for instance. 

Aside from the film being reviewed here, Price starred in a few other anthologies. 1962s TALES OF TERROR had Price in all three segments. Ditto for the following years TWICE TOLD TALES, a Corman-less anthology from United Artists. THE MONSTER CLUB from 1980 didn't feature Price in any of the stories, but saw him paired with John Carradine at the title disco in the framing segment.

FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM (1987) is a runner up for best horror compilation movie of the 1980s. CREEPSHOW (1982) would take the top spot, in this reviewers opinion. Others like TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983) and CREEPSHOW 2 (1987) are far too uneven. Entries such as SCREAMTIME (1983) and DEADTIME STORIES (1986) are homeless, quirky, off-the-radar pictures. 

Jeff Burr's first movie is very low budget in its own right, but there's no denying a passion for what he, his crew, and surprisingly high level stable of actors were able to accomplish with what little resources were at their disposal. Of all the other omnibus style pictures of that decade, FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM is easily the most repulsively downbeat with its distasteful denouements. It has balls -- blood-soaked as they are -- something visibly lacking from horror pictures of that time period and into the 1990s.

This review is representative of the MGM DVD.


Maynard Morrissey said...

I heard of it but I haven't seen it yet. Had no idea that this is actually an anthology - awesome!!

Dick said...

I really enjoy this movie - one of the best 80's horror movies IMO. There's been some rumors of a Scream Factory Blu down the road.

Franco Macabro said...

You have a knack for reviewing films that I've missed! This loooks awesome though, can't believe I haven't seen it since I love anthology movies! Will be seeing it soon for sure.

Twice Told Tales and Tales of Terror, I enjoyed both of these love that old school atmosphere they put in those. Out of some of the ones you've mentioned, I would love revisit Dead Time Stories and another I haven't seen in ages is Necronomicon, starring Jeffrey Combs.

venoms5 said...

@ Harry: Dude, you should check this out when you can. I thought you'd seen it already. For me, it was a gruesome breath of fresh air back then.

venoms5 said...

@ Dick: I agree, totally. A new release with some extras would be most welcome.

venoms5 said...

@ Fran: You have a knack as well, my friend! I never did see NECRONOMICON. There's a R2 2 disc DVD of it, I think. DEADTIME STORIES was pretty dumb, but fun. I think there's a newer film with that title, too?

Jack J said...

Cool review, Brian! I reviewed this myself for my zine, "Banned in Britain", almost 10 years ago and haven't watched it since then. Maybe it's time for a revisit. Now, where's that ol'e ex-rental video tape. LOL.

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