Written by Jeff Burr, C. Courtney Joyner & Darin Scott
Directed by Jeff Burr
A Moviestore Entertainment Picture
Starring: Vincent Price (Julian White); Cameron Mitchell (Sgt. Gallen); Susan Tyrell (Beth Chandler); Clu Gulager (Stanley Burnside); Terry Kiser (Jesse Hardwicke); Harry Caesar (Felder Evans); Didi Lanier (Amarillis Caulfield); Ron Brooks (Steven Arden); Rosalind Cash (The Snakewoman); Megan McFarland (Grace Scott); Miriam Byrd-Nethery (Eileen Burnside); Terrence Knox (Burt); Tommy Nowell (Andrew); Ashli Bare (Amanda); Martine Beswick (Katherine White); Lawrence Tierney (The Warden)
And with one fell swoop, this reviewer loses the bulk of his readership all on the merits of one film. I must confess that From A Whisper To A Scream often seems much closer to the ridiculous than the sublime: a low-budget feature from an era that glutted the video market with forgettable splatter films. Without its two icons of scares (Vincent Price and Cameron Mitchell), there would be no reason for anyone to give the picture a second look, right?
Actually, From A Whisper To A Scream has much to offer. Despite its obvious deficiencies in acting and budget, From A Whisper To A Scream scores high marks for its unapologetic taboo-breaking. Nearly twenty years before the “torture/porn” craze was born, this film boldly opens the Pandora’s Box of nearly every bestial impulse in human imagination and flaunts them for all too see. You want necrophilia? This film has it, not to mention voodoo, dismemberment, deformity, immolation, cannibalism, incest, torture and good old-fashioned gore to fall back on. And there’s this baby you don’t want to turn your back on…
From A Whisper To A Scream is an anthology and Vincent Price is this film’s version of the Crypt Keeper. He’s Julian White of Oldfield, Tennessee, a man with a truly gruesome library: the complete history of Oldfield which is, as he describes it, a story “written in blood on pages of human skin.” He’s also the uncle of Katherine White (Martine Beswick), a murderess whose final moments in the lethal injection chair sets the film’s mood. When reporter Beth Chandler (Susan Tyrrell) starts asking questions concerning Katherine’s motives, Julian merely shrugs and says that the poor girl couldn’t help being a mass murderess; that’s just the way it is when you’re from Oldfield. To prove his point, Julian tells four tales of past residents who learned for themselves about what a weekend in Oldfield can do to you for the rest of your short, painful life (if you’re one of the lucky ones, that is).
Despite its ridiculous opening sequence (which runs the gamut from a cheesy-looking soft-core porn to a trip inside a government-sanctioned death-chamber), From A Whisper To A Scream seems like a run-of-the-mill horror anthology with a grand old stalwart slumming away for what must have been no more than a day of filming. But the stories that Julian White tells have a way of drawing us in. For example, take Stanley Burnside (Clu Gulager), a lonely fiftyish man condemned to care for his sickly sister Eileen (Miriam Byrd-Nethery, Gulager’s real-life wife) while worshiping his boss, the much-younger Grace Scott (Megan McFarland), from afar. Stanley is certainly creepy-looking (no more so than during the ice baths that he’s forced to give to his ugly sister, who obviously feels more than just family affection for her brother) but there’s something undeniably sweet in his pursuit of the understandably cold-hearted Grace. This skinny schmuck with moon-shaped specs and dorky bow-tie pins all his hopes on winning Grace’s heart, he even writes a sweet and heartfelt song to illustrate his affections, but when she spurns his advances he ends up stopping her heart when he chokes her in the front seat of his car. Stanley’s segment reaches its emotional peak when he turns away from Grace’s fresh corpse (so fresh that poor Ms. McFarland can’t keep from blinking) and whispers the love song that she refused to listen to between sobs. But from that point on, something changes within Stanley… something that tells him that he’s not going to let a simple thing like death get in the way of conquering Grace’s enchanting (if unbreathing) body…
Yes, this film goes there. Stanley breaks into the funeral home and turns it into an “afternoon delight,” complete with champagne and a camera that slowly moves into Grace’s dead body as Stanley sets up his brief encounter and as romantically as Stanley probably remembers it. The man who fills two champagne glasses and clinks them together because his ladyfriend is resting in a coffin is a very different man from the one we first got to know at the beginning of the segment. And when he trudges home from work nine months later (a caption that should clue all viewers in to what’s going to happen), he’s a cold viper who has finally made up his mind to do what he always wanted to. Disgusted by Eileen’s attraction to him (she appears all dolled up like a cheap whore in an effort to catch his eye before her ice-bath), he finally works up the courage to ram an ice pick in her back and celebrate with a cold beer in front of the TV. Obviously, it was Eileen he wanted to rid himself of all along, even when he found himself strangling Grace, but Grace is not so easily put out of mind. Nine months have gone by and something digs itself out of her grave and comes looking for its daddy.
Years before the remake of Dawn Of The Dead (2004), From A Whisper To A Scream gives us a zombie baby that’s as strong as an ox and hungry for flesh. The effect shouldn’t work (I wouldn’t be surprised if there were as many laughs as “ewwwwwws” from viewers on its first appearance) and yet there is something undeniably horrifying when that baby stands at the top of the stairs, wriggling and croaking “Daddy” at Stanley, who’s terrified and probably pissing himself on the landing. Whether that look at the rubber zombie baby wriggling at the top of the stairs before it pounces on Stanley is remarkably effective or ridiculously futile is almost irrelevant in the heat of the moment: we’ve been pushed centuries past the realm of good taste but that’s okay because, let’s face it, that’s what the best horror films do.
All anthology films have a weak story and the story of Jesse Hardwick (Terry Kiser, three years away from playing the world’s most happy-go-lucky corpse in Weekend At Bernie’s) fulfills this standard. Jesse is a two-bit hustler whose shot and left for dead by the last guys he ripped off. He’s saved by Felder Evans (Harry Caesar), an old man who Jesse begins to suspect may be older (hundreds of years older) than he looks. Thinking it would be nice to have some company throughout the centuries, Evans tries to initiate Jesse in the ways of voodoo, but impatience gets the better of the young thug and he tries to kill the immortal man. When Jesse finally achieves immortality, he realizes the folly of trying to kill the equally immortal Evans, who pays Jesse back a thousand times over. The segment rambles without any real direction until Jesse finds himself chained to Evens’s porch covered in kerosene while Evans lifts an axe over his head, all the time telling him not to worry because he can’t die. Immortality tales tend to be cut from the same cloth, “Be-careful-what-you-wish-for” lessons that always has the poor schmuck facing an eternity of torture. The episode scores only in the severity of Jesse’s lesson; no one can quite believe what they find in that sack left on the road (this is years before another living-mess of a human being in a sack was featured in Audition (1999)). And it says something about the level of emotion that director Jeff Burr puts into the segment when he decided to make its final shot a close-up of a tear streaming down Jesse’s charred face (an effort to make us feel sorry for a rotten punk who, let’s face it, got what was coming to him).
Faring better is Julian’s third tale of Amarillis Caulfield (Didi Lanier), a poor innocent girl who had the misfortune to fall in love with Steven the glass-eater (Ron Brooks) from a traveling carnival. The segment plays into the natural curiosity that everyone has about the type of life carnie folks might lead, particularly those who have little choice to do anything else (the deformed and the grotesques). Like many carnival stories, the tents are filled with a colorful bunch (including Angelo Rossitto, a dwarf actor who’s many credits included Tod Browning’s Freaks way back in 1932), but the most colorful of all is the Snakewoman (Rosalind Cash) who has the power to turn anyone into the next main attraction. We never find out exactly what drew Steven in the Snakewoman’s clutches (we do hear of the crimes of the other freaks that led them to hide in plain sight of the carnival), but his foolishness in allowing Amarillis to believe that they have a future leads to both his death and her fate under the thumb of the Snakewoman. It’s highly effective when, after Amarillis spirits him away to a motel, his amazing powers leave him and everything he’s eaten (glass, screws, bolts) starts shooting through his skin, so that eventually the Snakewoman finds a blood-soaked Amarillis with Steven’s decimated body lying her lap, like Sam Peckinpah’s version of the Pieta. The segment’s only failing is its denouement, featuring Amarillis as the carnival’s newest attraction, the Pin-Cushion Woman. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for Amarillis to become an attraction, and her “punishment” doesn’t have even the lightest touch of irony. It is also worth noting that the segment has the least to do with the film’s theme of “Evil Oldfield,” as it is not Amarillis but the Snakewoman who travels to Oldfield and brings her evil with her (presumably, this story could have taken place anywhere the carnival set up camp). Still, it is good and effective segment, especially when compared to Jesse’s story.
Creepiest of all is Julian’s story of the foundation of Oldfield. In this Civil War mini-saga, Sgt. Gallen (Cameron Mitchell at his nastiest and perviest) commands a small group of Union soldiers and doesn’t hesitate to fire on Confederates waving a white flag nor does it phase him when he learns that the war is over. To him, the southern U.S. states are a treasure trove of riches that are his for the taking as long as he can plead that he didn’t know anything was going on at Appomattox Court House, and you know he means business when he decides to shoot one of his own for desertion just because the poor boy wanted to go home at the end of hostilities. But Gallen and his men are soon captured by a group of abandoned children who have no need of “big people” in their society. Director Jeff Burr goes to town with this pint-sized army: wounded and deformed little pioneers who have no qualms about enforcing their authority with torture, dismemberment and even cannibalism, all backed by the mysterious magistrate, who is eventually revealed to be the remains of the children’s parents. Gallen seals his fate when, trying to escape, he murders the one sweet-natured girl in the pack. He runs… but the bastard doesn’t get far.
Here more than anywhere in the film, one can feel Burr stretching himself out to try to make a film worthy of the genre (and of the name of Vincent Price) on what must’ve been the lowest of budgets. This “Origins Of Oldfield” story is the best idea of the bunch and it is easy to see why Burr saved it for last. He also saved for last his other genre Ace-In-The-Hole, Cameron Mitchell, who spent a lifetime traveling the globe and earning his horror credentials by appearing in low-budget adventure and horror films. Mitchell is perfectly cast as Gallen, the lowest of the low who deserves no better than what the children of Oldfield finally give him. Although we might try and put ourselves in his place and try to think of what we would do to escape these murderous children, Gallen scores high on the degenerate meter when he makes friends with the horribly wounded girl Amanda (Ashli Bare). In a sweet voice that we can almost believe on the first viewing, Gallen tells her that, if he were only free, he would adopt her and take her to Union doctors who would restore her leg and blinded eye (unlike her friends who tried to give her the eye of one of Gallen’s men earlier on). Amanda wants to believe that, despite all the horror she’s seen, there’s still good in the world, and so she loosens Gallen’s binds, and he repays her with disgustingly long mouth kiss and a quick twist that breaks her little neck. Despite the animal-like cruelty of the children, we are not upset when Gallen is recaptured and reduced to using the same words that didn’t help the soldiers that he fired on, “But the war is over.” It’s fitting that the children drag him into the open courtyard and set him alight (possibly for fun or possibly for dinner) because, by this time in the film, we realize that Vincent Price – as much as he might be slumming for a paycheck – is absolutely right: Oldfield is an evil place where evil things happen. In that respect, this first story of Oldfield makes perfect sense and is the perfect way to end this anthology.
From A Whisper To A Scream is plagued with problems: when Eileen Burnside is knifed in a bathtub with an ice pick, her bathwater remains remarkably clear, the Confederate children all speak with northern accents (you’d think somebody on the set would’ve noticed that and realized that, in a story about Union soldiers desecrating the south, this might have suspended the audience’s disbelief) and Julian White’s fate, murdered by Beth Chandler with little motivation, can be seen coming from a mile away, but the film transcends it’s obvious short-comings. It achieves the same effect of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre or an Exorcist when it crosses those taboo lines, when we see foreign objects bursting out of a man’s body or when children play with a dismembered torso as if it were a piñata. It is at these moments when From A Whisper To A Scream achieves the goal of all great horror films. I cannot walk away from this film with anything except a feeling of total satisfaction, something that I cannot do at the end of Friday The 13th, where the spirit was willing but the talent was Oh too obviously weak. From A Whisper To A Scream will never appear on any single list of great horror films except this one, but I don’t include it just for the privilege of being different. Despite its flaws, it is a truly effective, horrifying and entertaining addition to the genre, and I would not trade it for the world.