Written by: C. Courtney Joyner & Mike Malone, Darin Scott & Jeff Burr
Directed by: Jeff Burr
Starring: Vincent Price, Clu Gulager, and Susan Tyrrell
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"One thing I've learned, my dear, is that one is never too old for nightmares."
Perhaps unfairly (but understandably), time has reduced the 80s horror scene to a landscape of slasher films. Despite its vast array of sub-genres, this is and will always be its legacy. However, this era was arguably a golden age for anthologies as well, as both movie and television screens became crowded with various riffs on the theme. Few efforts were scrappier than From a Whisper to a Scream, the sophomore effort from under-heralded genre director Jeff Burr. After dropping out of USC’s film school to complete debut film Divided We Fall to some acclaim, Burr returned to his Georgia roots for a gruesome anthology that blends vintage horror, contemporary splatter, and a tinge of southern gothic for added flavor.
Set in fictional Oldfield, Tennessee, the film is framed by the execution of a notorious inmate, whose horrific crimes have drawn reporter Beth Chandler (Susan Tyrell) to town. Seeking more information for a story, reporter Beth Chandler (Susan Tyrrell) visits the slain inmate’s uncle (Vincent Price), who doubles as Oldfield’s historian. Much to Beth’s bemusement, the historian is rather nonchalant about his niece’s awful crimes and subsequent execution and notes that her crimes have merely added another chapter to the town’s sordid history. After plucking a book from his shelf, he begins to relay a quartet of gruesome stories that stretch all the way back to the town’s Civil War days.
The first centers on terminally awkward Stanley Burnside (Clu Gulager, rendered unrecognizable by slicked-back hair and huge coke-bottle glasses), a small-time clerk who has remained very much a bachelor well into middle age. Living with his sickly, shut-in sister (Miriam Byrd-Netherly), he pines for a pretty, way-out-of-his-league employee (Megan McFarland). When he impossibly scores a date with her, his greatest wish becomes a nightmare once years of frustration and rage bubble to the surface. A perfect overture for From a Whisper to a Scream, this segment establishes the film’s gleefully perverse and macabre sensibilities: hints of incest and necrophilia underpin a grisly tale of madness. Savage murder and unholy vengeance trail in the wake, with Gulager providing a strong anchor as the weaselly, despicable Stanley, a wormy bastard that would typically be on the business end of a Gulager ass-kicking. In a movie crawling with shit heels deserving a horrifying comeuppance, he's the most indelible.
Terry Kiser gives him a run for his money in the next segment as Jesse Hardwick, a criminal on the run from a pack of gangsters during the 1950s. While on the lam, he’s rescued and tended to by a mysterious man (Harry Caesar) hoarding the secret to immortality. Set amongst Oldfield’s swamps, this episode relies more on a sweaty, voodoo-tinged atmosphere as it patiently builds to another warped climax, where a character once again finds their dreams twisted into a nightmare. If this isn’t the longest segment, it certainly feels so considering the limited amount of action, but Kiser is another wonderful asshole who earns his shocking fate. Waiting for the dreadful punchline here is worthwhile, as it suggests a terrifying purgatory of physical agony without the possibility of death. It’s the ultimate example of being careful what you wish for.
The third segment takes viewers back to a fair in the 30s, where a glass-eating carnie (Ron Brooks) falls in love with a girl (Martine Beswick), only to meet with resistance from circus’s conniving snake-woman (Rosalind Cash). An outlier from the film’s other segments, this one departs from the Amicus formula of awful characters meeting with an appropriately awful fate. Brooks and Beswick are refreshingly innocent protagonists caught up in the town’s accursed mojo, while Cash is delightfully campy. Still, it’s no less disgusting in its gory that—what was only hinted at during the second segment is on full, garish, and bloody display here. Like that preceding episode, this one also takes its time in leading to another punchline that finds a character frozen in anguish. These middle segments are arguably less memorable than the bookends, but they form the grisly meat of From a Whisper to a Scream as its meanest, bleakest segments.
For the finale, the film returns to the formula by once again dealing in assholes in need of bloody comeuppance. In this case, a group of Union soldiers (lead by Cameron Mitchell) continue their aggression even after the Civil War has ended. In the aftermath of their latest encounter, they happen across a bunch of strange children apparently living without adult supervision. A riff on Children of the Corn but guided with a righteous sense of southern justice, this capper is a signature segment that even takes a stab at social commentary once we learn why the children are so disturbed. In this respect, it’s more Twilight Zone than it is Amicus, though its bizarre imagery (which again captures faces trapped in agony) is rather unique. You almost wonder if it also doubles as Oldfield’s peculiar origin story—perhaps this was the point where the town well was irrevocably poisoned by bloodshed.
As far as anthology hooks go, the Oldfield angle is a wobbly but agreeable frame since the town itself emerges as a colorful character in its own right. Burr, who was hails from rural Georgia, captures the region’s southern Gothic charm with a rich assortment of hayseeds and grungy locales. Having been raised in the same area, I can vouch for the creepy hole-in-the-wall nature of Oldfield: the highways here are dotted with sleepy towns and local lore haunted by horrible legends and spooky landmarks. With A Whisper to a Scream, Burr effectively collects these campfire tales into a gaudy sideshow of freaks, eviscerations, and unruly spirits conjured by a gossipy Old South (truly, nothing captures the area better than a chatty old timer looking to delight in how fucked up his hometown is).
During his formative years, Burr cut his teeth on backyard Super 8 projects, and you catch a whiff of that homespun enthusiasm in From a Whisper to a Scream. Despite its familiar faces (or perhaps because of them), it feels like a logical, scrappy successor to the regional drive-in fare of the 70s, as Burr’s film has the handcrafted, patchwork quality of a passion project stitched together by grit, determination, and a desire to show off some wild, ghastly shit, be it fetus monsters or a carnie eating shards of glass. Over the next decade, Burr would become a reliable genre hand, particularly for sequels that had no right turning out as well as they did. From the start, his reverence for both the genre’s splattery indulgences and its hallowed tradition was obvious: save for a couple of deliberate stretches, the film is packed with horrid, nightmarish imagery, while Price’s presence (and his cavernous, gothic mansion) connects the vintage past to a gory present. His sharing the screen with Tyrrell (who by 1987 was on her way to becoming a cult icon) is a bridge between eras: From a Whisper to a Scream is both a bloody ode and a delirious snapshot capturing the breadth and width of a genre as any great omnibus should.
Price’s involvement is a prime exhibit of Burr’s resourcefulness. Armed with only his script, a bottle of wine, and an address, Burr and a producer visited the legendary actor’s home and pitched their film. Won over by Burr’s confidence, Price signed on despite his reluctance to feature in horror movies at this point in his career. This and several other anecdotes await the supplements for Scream Factory’s incredibly lavish Blu-ray for the film. Two commentaries (one with Burr, the other with co-writers C. Courtney Joyner and Darin Scott) and a pair of feature-length documentaries provide a wealth of information that covers every inch of the film’s production. “Return to Oldfield” clocks in at nearly two hours and specifically documents From a Whisper to a Scream, while “A Decade Under the Influence” charts Burr’s Super 8 days that expand upon the material found in Scream’s recent Pumpkinhead II release. These two documentaries alone run nearly twice as long as the film itself, and this doesn’t even account for the usual promo material (TV spots, a theatrical trailer, and a stills gallery).
As is sometimes the case with Scream, don’t let the lack of a Collector’s Edition designation fool you: this is one of their most impressive releases so far, and it’s a well-deserved treatment for one of the decade’s best anthology films.
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