From a Whisper to a Scream is a movie I first saw on VHS under the title The Offspring which had a kick-ass hand drawn cover of a monster ripping its way out of the middle of the box. As one of the many regional horror efforts that flooded the market in the 80’s, this effort from sophomore director Jeff Burr and producer Darrin Scott is a prime example of why anthology films tend to cause mixed reactions. It follows the standard formula of having a wraparound story and a variety of tales but, like most, suffers from the sequence of the stories just not working as the best two (of four) bookend the flick making the middle two somewhat of a chore to get through. These days anthologies have become an easy way to showcase indie directors and get their names out there for cheap – like the V/H/S series, for example – but back when I was a kid they were more in line with what we get here and even though there’s better out there from around the same period (Creepshow, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie) this never reaches the nadir of fare like Night Train to Terror.
Welcome to the quaint town of Oldfield, Tennessee. After watching an accused killer’s lethal injection, a reporter (Susan Tyrrell) comes to town to visit his uncle Julia White (the incomparable Vincent Price) who is also the town’s historian and sits down with our journalist to weave the tales within. We keep circling back to them between the stories White is narrating which leads to the expected twist ending.
Things kick off on the right foot with the best tale as Clu Gulager plays a bespectacled nerd who is plagued by bloody dreams while dealing with a sickly sister (played by Gulager’s real life wife, Miriam Byrd-Nethery) and a crush on a female co-worker who continually snubs him. Of course, things soon go off the rails as the story goes into serial killer territory and includes a twisted necrophilia angle as well as some demon baby nuttiness. Gulager is great here giving a creepy performance which matches the unsettling mood.
Next up, we have a man (Terry Kiser) who is fleeing from some gangsters that have wounded him. He ends up in the bayou where he meets a hermit-like stranger (Harry Caesar) and becomes involved with voodoo and strange supernatural events. There’s a really well-done dream sequence when he’s drifting down the swamp on a raft and some strong visuals but after that bizarre previous segment this doesn’t have as much of an impact.
Despite its 1930’s carnival setting and focus on the sideshow, a subject that has always fascinated me making me instantly anticipating greatness, the third story here is the least engaging as it tells of the forbidden love between a normal local girl (Didi Lanier) and the carnival’s resident glass-eater (Ron Brooks). As it’s the quickest entry, it doesn’t have a chance to get tiresome but I didn’t think it cashed in on the potential of its setting and though some of the effects are cool (like glass working its way back out of Brook’s body), this was slender at best.
The Civil War themed final tale has some soldiers roaming through the countryside unaware that the war has ended. Under the command of their Sergeant (Cameron Mitchell), they soon end up at an isolated farm populated only by children. Things soon turn to horror when our kids have murderous intentions and take the platoon hostage. From here there’s some pretty morbid business involving an eye, many scenes of Mitchell sitting around looking off into the distance introspectively, and some off-beat violence. As a fan of ‘killer kid’ horror, I thought this one delivered enough of what I expect from the sub-genre and the young cast members all give convincing performances.
Made on a low-budget, From a Whisper to a Scream, benefits from managing to secure lots of familiar faces in its cast. Price, as Burr tells it, agreed to appear after seeing footage from the segments as well as being visited at his home by Burr, Scott, and a bottle of wine. He’s as solid as expected in his limited screen time. Gulager (The Return of the Living Dead) steals the show here in a memorable, eerie performance that’s also too good for the movie. Mitchell, who by this point was appearing in tons of shoddy b-movies, seems to sleepwalk his way through his role. Kiser is also (unfortunately) mostly known as ‘that dead guy’ in the Weekend at Bernie’s flicks, Tyrrell appeared in the cult favourites Forbidden Zone and Angel, and Rosalind Cash (the snake woman in the third segment) is best known for co-starring with Charlton Heston in 1971’s The Omega Man.
As a starting point for Burr and Scott, this is about as hit-or-miss as a lot of anthologies but served as a calling card for them both. Burr would go on to direct a handful of entertaining horror sequels (Stepfather 2, Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III) as well as the underrated Night of the Scarecrow while Scott would produce the way more entertaining urban horror anthology Tales from the Hood and Menace II Society. Taken as a whole, it’s pretty passable, but that first story kicked my ass and after being dulled down by the middle sequences at least the murderous kiddies helped perk me up. It’s worth seeing for the cast but is nothing more than middle-of-the-road. (Chris Hartley, 6/20/16)
Directed By: Jeff Burr.
Written By: C. Courtney Joyner, Darin Scott, Jeff Burr.
Starring: Vincent Price, Clu Gulager, Terry Kiser, Harry Caesar.
aka: The Offspring.