You may know From a Whisper to a Scream as The Offspring, the ill-conceived alternate title for this Vincent Price-helmed anthology film of four shorts. Either way, the content is still the same – Price, sort of roped into appearing in the film, introduces each of the tales to an interested reporter by documenting that the town of a recent serial killer (Oldfield, Tennessee) is actually home to a lot of terrible people. Director Jeff Burr and the multiple screenwriters on this film – including C. Courtney Joyner and Darin Scott – combine period pieces with contemporary stories to find a happy medium for each of these stories, although the connection to Oldfield is tenuous at best.
The tales’ connections to the framing story is the worst mistake, since Price doesn’t get much time to explain them before the next story begins. From a Whisper to a Scream leaves these moments hanging in a sort of limbo; their themes are obvious, including human suffering and the potential for people from Oldfield to perpetrate odd and debauched crimes, but these stories could have been told with any setting in mind to explain the overwhelming disaffect in humanity and the impact would have been the same. They don’t gel, as an anthology, as well as they should, and that stems from the way each of the stories was written, in pieces instead of constructed with a narrative flow in mind.
With that said, Price works with what he has, and he’s certainly a good fit for the librarian part that he’s playing. It’s somewhat expected that Price, as the creepy old man in an old manse and uncle of a recently executed serial killer, becomes the killed instead of the killer, mostly because in Burr’s attempts to circumnavigate the norm it ends up becoming the less of a twist than a smiling nod to Price’s body of work that has come to define the late part of Price’s career. But Price brings a fun and humorous mania to the character that’s needed for the significantly dark stories of this set, and Susan Tyrrell, as the reporter Beth Chandler, reciprocates with her own subdued performance.
The first segment in From a Whisper to a Scream stars Clu Gulager as the central character Stanley, a man who has been consumed with a ritualistic lifestyle because of his sister’s (Miriam Byrd-Nethary) illness. Burr documents the day-to-day workings of the man, his unfulfilling job and lack of luck in relationships with his co-worker leading him to adopt a crazed lifestyle where he begins to do things he really wants – like murdering his naggy sister, then attempting to rape said co-worker, until ultimately resorting to necrophilia and somehow creating a demon baby from the woman’s dead womb.
“Stanley” is probably the best of the stories in this anthology, adopting a no-holds-barred approach to the content that works very well. Gulager really sells Stanley as the cowed and emotionally scarred man that becomes a murderer and then the victim, and this helps it to fit within the confines of the Oldfield serial-killer aspect that the framing story sets up. At the same time, “Stanley” is also the most outrageous, from its necrophiliac depictions to its incestuous connotations and, in the finale, its undead child complete with a dangling penis. It’s not the most understated of episodes in the film, but it does entertain throughout, which is more than can be said for the next episode.
That one is about a criminal named Jesse (Terry Kiser) who gets shot by his own gang and is left to die. There’s little lead-up to this, and the episode jumps right into its main storyline when Jesse manages to get away out into the swamp and is picked up by Felder Evans (Harry Caesar), a shamanic-type hermit who has figured out the secret to eternal life. So it goes – Jesse, being the criminal that he is, wants the eternal life for himself, and turns on the man who helped heal him; it’s a fairly conventional story that feels like an issue of an EC Comics rag, and it’s slow to boot. But Darin Scott, writer of this episode, manages to sneak a grim little twist in at the end, a moment that redeems the story at least in part.
Perhaps the worst of the four is the carnival tale, starring Ron Brooks as a glass-eater named Steven who has become the obsession of a “normal” woman named Amarrillis (Didi Lanier). Rosalind Cash plays the snakewoman and owner of the troupe who won’t allow Steven to leave, and she pursues both of them until she effectively makes them wish they’d never crossed her. Unfortunately, this carnival tale is particularly dark and brutal for no reason; there’s no redeeming quality to the tale, and it basically becomes a Romeo and Juliet story where the villains win out. It does feature a very cool special effects sequence where glass explodes out of Steven’s stomach, but that viscera doesn’t save this episode.
Finally, a Civil War period piece ends the anthology when a terrible sergeant (Cameron Mitchell) gets his dues at the hands of a group of disturbed children who have learned to fight for themselves. There’s actually quite a bit of good thematic meat to this one, and Burr uses it to his advantage when he has Mitchell killing a couple of children in cold blood – got to make up for that taboo somewhere.
From a Whisper to a Scream is, like many anthology films, often hit-or-miss. It has three fairly good stories and one that doesn’t work that well, with a framing story that attempts to collectively round up all four episodes but fails to do it effectively. At the same time, it’s easy to admire Burr’s direction, because the film isn’t concerned with overly sinister plots and its stories are often intensely cynical. We’re left with a movie that has achieved a cult following precisely because of its ode to horror movies, and though it’s not always excellent, it is a great example of filmmaking without interference, from a group of horror lovers just wanting to make a movie.
Scream Factory has loaded From a Whisper to a Scream with stuff. Like usual, the film looks great on Blu-Ray and has a crisp soundtrack, and the subtitles featured are perfect as well. There are two commentary tracks on this, one from director Jeff Burr and another from Darin Scott and C. Courtney Joyner.
But those might not be necessary to watch, because Scream has also included a documentary making-of film from Balleyhoo Productions titled Return to Oldfield, a two-hour feature presentation that interviews Burr, Scott, Joyner, Gulager, and a host of other crew and cast members. This is a very comprehensive documentary, and it goes through the entire production of From a Whisper to a Scream – it’s lengthy, but definitely worth a watch. Like I said, it’s so in-depth that you might not need to watch those commentary tracks, but you certainly can if you so choose.
Also included, but less vital, is another documentary from Balleyhoo featuring Burr and other members of From a Whisper to a Scream called A Decade Under the Innocence. This one’s about an hour and 15 minutes long, and it runs through memories and recollections of making Super 8 films in the ’70s in the Georgia area. It has little to do with From a Whisper to a Scream, and I’d only recommend it if you’re super interested in Super 8 or if you’re a filmmaker. For me, it didn’t have much resonance.
Lastly, there is a 10-minute audio commentary from Burr over stills from the production. I like this way of showing stills because it gives the viewer some context. Along with that is a theatrical trailer and TV spots. Plus, you get reversible cover artwork, which allows you to make From a Whisper to a Scream into The Offspring if you like. This thing is packed with features, making it the definitive collection for the film.