Ever since seeing Creepshow (1982) when it first arrived on video, I’ve been enamored with anthology films; reaching back to Amicus’ ‘60s and ‘70s treasures like Tales from the Crypt (1972) all the way up to Epic Pictures’ Tales of Halloween (2015), omnibuses scratch a very particular itch for this viewer. Falling somewhere in the middle of my terrorline is From a Whisper to a Scream (1987), a proud and nasty addition to the sub-genre. This bugger does not mess around.
Released by Moviestore Entertainment stateside and by Cineplex-Odeon up here in Canada the following year, From a Whisper to a Scream (AKA The Offspring, which is what I knew it as) made back its $ 1.1 million budget plus a few dollars more, and the film received mixed reviews from critics in its limited release. Scrappy and mean, with a delightful turn from Vincent Price in the wraparound, From a Whisper to a Scream delivers with four very solid tales of decadence guaranteed to hit at least a couple of your twisted pleasure points.
The film opens with the execution by lethal injection of serial killer Katherine White (Martine Beswick – Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde) in Oldfield, Tennessee. Witnessing her death is reporter Beth Chandler (Susan Tyrrell – Rockula), who then tracks down her Uncle Julian (Price), the town’s historian and librarian. Julian regales Beth with four tales that describe the evil that permeates the very soil of the town:
From a Whisper to a Scream offers a lot of variety for the discriminating horror lover; each tale is unique and offers up the “poetic justice” of the EC Comics of yore – with the exception of the third segment, which chooses to punish the protagonists for the mere fact that they’re in love. While well-made and performed with some gruesome effects (you just know that glass will be in play), this plays as the least effective due to its lack of hook i.e. Bad People Get Theirs, which I need, dammit it all. Comeuppance is one of my very favourite dramatic devices in horror (and action; comedy too, come to think of it) and the anthology story is the perfect place to use it; setup to punchline in 20 minutes or less and get out.
So four and a wraparound is a good ratio, even better so when the majority of stories are so strong; not so much because of the complexity of the plots – they’re more or less simple revenge tales – but due to the conviction that the filmmakers bring to the material. This was director Jeff Burr’s second feature, and his lean and energetic style would serve him well with the much underrated The Stepfather II and the aforementioned Leatherface. (There’s no need to bring Pumpkinhead II into this.)
It’s this enthusiasm that fuels From a Whisper to a Scream; from the screenplay by C. Courtney Joyner (Prison), Darin Scott (Tales from the Hood), and Burr himself to the scrappily impressive practical effects by Rob Burman (The Thing), everyone works well above the budget to provide a polished product for the horror hungry. But it’s not only “enthusiasm”, which can sometimes in low budget terms just be shorthand for “eager but meager”; this is no amateur hour, with all parties involved showing a level of professionalism (and occasional inspiration) uncommon for a film at this level.
And at this level, sometimes things can get nasty; in addition to corpse love, child zombies, and dismemberment, we’re treated to fatal indigestion and pin the tail on…well, you’ll see. All told with nary a wink to be had; perhaps that’s why the film’s reputation is apart from others of its ilk; punishment is served, but in a grimmer fashion than its inspiration.
Therefore any humor to be mined is offered from those in front of the screen; and a couple of veterans are definitely up to the task. First off, even getting Vincent Price was quite the coup for the filmmakers, and he didn’t reluctantly sign on for the wraparound until after the segments had been filmed. (He was trying to move away from horror.) Nor did he care much at all for the finished product; however, his mere presence alone adds a level of prestige to the proceedings that a big budget film never could – and that’s horror royalty. And his scenes with Tyrrell are terrific; his sweet southern drawl luring her in closer as he introduces each succeeding segment, and he does the same with the viewer. He may not have appreciated the final product, but he brings a joyful, sly energy to the part as only he could. Really, the whole cast is great and filled with names from horrors past (Cash) and future (Kiser) that all do their part to sell the dark material.
But no one seems to be on even the same planet as Clu Gulager; his Stanley Burnside is a sweaty, twitching mess of a human, with coke bottle glasses, slicked back hair, and a greasy undershirt to complete his ensemble. The stained shirt is a good metaphor for Stanley himself, who not only is obsessed with a co-worker to the point of murder (and beyond), but also hints at an incestuous relationship with his ill sister. (Watch out for those ice baths. Brr.) Gulager is never less than interesting in films, and his Stanley is mesmerizing. Awful to the core, but utterly compelling. (Don’t worry, he probably gets his.)
The ‘80s have more than a few anthology films that aim for (and play with) the Creepshow model; none of them however lean into the mean like From a Whisper to a Scream does. I’m afraid it may even be too cruel for poor old Stanley, bless his greasy soul.
From a Whisper to a Scream is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.