Horror anthologies are a big challenge for genre filmmakers. It’s hard to come up with a set of stories that maintain a consistent level of quality and it’s also hard to create a wraparound concept that will really bring it all together into a coherent whole. However, the format can be macabre magic when it works, as proven by enduring fan favorites like Creepshow and the original Amicus version of Tales From The Crypt.
Though it not as well-known as the aforementioned titles, From A Whisper To A Scream definitely belongs on that list. This independent effort, originally released as The Offspring, was an incubator that produced several still-working genre filmmakers: Jeff Burr directed, C.Courtney Joyner contributed to the script and Darin Scott both co-wrote and produced. This humbly-budgeted but ambitious film found these upstarts taking the horror anthology into dark and dangerous territory befitting its mid-‘80s production vintage.
The framework for From A Whisper To A Scream is provided by the fictional town of Oldfield, Tennessee. A reporter (Susan Tyrrell) investigating the execution of a female prisoner for multiple murders ends up at the book-filled home of town historian Julian White (Vincent Price), who happens to be the uncle of the murderess. The reporter hopes for information on her subject but is instead treated to a series of tales about Oldfield’s gruesome history, which Julian uses to explain his niece’s mindset.
The tales within this framework cover a variety of settings and time periods: a secretly twisted man (Clu Gulager) gives in to his dark passions only to pay a surprising price, a crook (Terry Kiser) is saved from certain death by a swamp-dwelling man who might possess powerful magic, a glass eater (Ron Brooks) in a sideshow finds true love with a townie but must first escape the dark hold of the sideshow’s queen bee (Rosalind Cash) and the amoral leader (Cameron Mitchell) of a troop of Union soldiers during the Civil War finds himself trapped in a war-ravaged town run by sinister children. The latter tale has a clever tie-in to the wraparound story, which delivers a grim parting shot at the close.
From A Whisper To A Scream rises about the rough edges of its low budget because it is fueled by a sincere passion for the horror genre. Each of the stories is smartly-crafted, fusing the Southern Gothic with E.C. Comics and always remembering to deliver a killer payoff with each story. The tales really stick because they aren’t afraid to commit to the inherent darkness of the genre. In these stories, love doesn’t conquer all, villains are often punished after they’ve ruined the innocence of others and the prices people pay for their missteps are frequently worse than you could imagine.
The film also impresses with its style. What it lacks in technical polish it makes up for with a deep-dish level of southern atmosphere: Burr shot the film in his hometown of Dalton, Georgia and he exploits its wilderness, swamps and vintage homes to their full extent. The production design by Cynthia Charette and Allen Posten is very impressive for a low-budget effort, aiding the authentically southern feel in a big way, and the brief but memorable bits of bloody effects work are delivered with gusto by Rob Burman (the sideshow story’s finale delivers his most memorable effects). Even the obligatory ‘80s synth score is above-average here: Jim Manzie’s music is skillfully arranged and highly melodic.
However, the element of From A Whisper To A Scream that really puts the whole enterprise across the plate is the acting. Burr and company managed to secure an impressive array of a talent for an indie effort and everyone rises to the challenges of the material. Price and a surprisingly low-key Tyrrell anchor the wraparound with elegant performances but the real scene-stealers appear in the individual tales: Gulager gives a darkly humorous performance as a closet sadist, Kiser is memorably intense as a scheming crook, Cash plays her villainous role with wild-eyed fervor and Mitchell gets the most out of the best role of his latter-day career as a cruel, corrupt military man.
In short, From A Whisper To A Scream is one of the best horror anthologies to emerge from the ‘80s and well worth discovery for anyone exploring this subset of the horror film. It makes the most of the anthology format and — be forewarned — it plays for keeps.