Thursday, October 20, 2011

From a Whisper to a Scream

From a Whisper to a Scream (aka Offspring, 1987).
Dir Jeff Burr
Starring Vincent Price, Clu Gulager, Terry Kiser, Harry Ceaser
 Yeah, this isn't in the movie
Don't you hate it when you're in the mood for a certain kind of movie, you find something that looks perfect, and then it's completely different than what you thought? That was my experience with 1987's Vincent Price horror anthology FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM. I was looking for a little horror film to ease my transition from into the October horror marathon. I was feeling entirely worn out and exhausted, and figured I needed something with a nice Halloween vibe but nothing too overwhelming. Something kind of crappy that I could zone out to but still whet my appetite for the season (the first of October is like the start of football season to the horror geek). I settled on this minor-looking cheapie horror anthology for three excellent reasons.

1: It stars Vincent Price. Price alone all but guarantees a certain unique vibe of macabre but usually overwrought (if not outright campy) horror film.

2: It's a horror anthology. Horror probably has a greater per capita ratio of anthologies to full-length films than any other genre, but most of them are not really all that, you know, good. Even most of the classic entries into that genre are not good. Does anyone actually like anything other than the last segment of TRILOGY OF TERROR? Of course they don't.

3: 1987. That's the same year as ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING. Not a great time for horror films, and even those legitimately great ones like EVIL DEAD II tend towards goofy, fun times rather than disturbing nightmares.

So I figured I had WHISPER pegged. I settled back, cracked open a MD 20/20, and let my eyes glaze over. The film begins promisingly enough with a lady who looks like she was built from the spare parts of 1985 who's being executed in soft focus via lethal injection. A reporter at the scene leaves and heads straight for Vincent Price's house –a sort of museum/library/gothic Southern Mansion, or at least a painting of one-- to ask him what he thinks caused his niece (the executee) to snap and become a sociopathic murderess a la MONSTER but uglier and 80sier. Price is looking very, very old and very, very tired, and halfway attempting a sort of Tennessee accent every fifth line or so in the grand tradition of Peter Cushing's SHOCK WAVES German cadence. The library he lives in looks like it could have been built and lit by Roger Corman himself. Price pontificates grandiosely (albeit in a way which suggest he was too tired to complain about one more take) about how the town itself is to blame for the murders. He tells four stories of residents of the town who have come to bad ends, bookending everything (unnecessarily, he appears in-between the stories as well to rehash exactly what he said before the last one.) Yes sir, this thing was looking like just what I had in mind.

But then something entirely unexpected happened. The movie got good. Not watchable, not better than expected; good good. The first story stars RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD'S Clu Gulager (absolutely unrecognizable) as a tightly wound grocery story manager who pines for a gorgeous but aloof female employee even as his devotion to his invalid sister holds him back. This story has about every ick scenario ever put in a horror movie, including but not limited to rape, incest, necrophilia, murder, cannibalism and terrible songwriting. No problem, except that it's executed to the hilt with a kind of sweaty, atmospheric mix of gritty realism and nightmarish Southern Gothic surrealism. Here's how good it is: when a tiny anamatronic monster zombie appears, you will only laugh a little. And you'll be genuinely unnerved as soon as you see the expression on Gulager's face. It's an upsetting little tale which treats its subjects dead serious and indulges in a pitch-black sense of humor only to heighten the horror, rather than relieve it.

This poster has even less to do with the film than the first one.
The second tale, featuring a fantastic Terry Kiser and an even better Harry Ceaser focuses on a low-life scuzzball who is rescued, near death, by a swamp-dwelling recluse with an unspeakable secret. It's has a low-key sinister crawl building to another genuinely shocking moment, but its real strength is a superb sense of time and place, intelligently milking both evocative beauty and alien menace from its swamp setting.

The third story, the inevitable “weakest of the segments,” is about a carnival glass eater and his would-be girlfriend and their doomed attempt to leave against the wishes of the carnival's witchy owner. It also has plenty of atmosphere and great performances, but it's narratively a bit weaker than the first two, failing to get the most out of its gore hound ending.

The fourth story is not the best, but it may be the most interesting. It finds a group of despicable Union soldiers (who are introduced murdering surrendering Confederate troops without realizing that the war has ended) at the brink of their discovery of a mysterious farm, abandoned except for a curiously well-organized society of war orphans. It's a little BEYOND THUNDERDOME and a little CHILDREN OF THE CORN, and it admirably builds a creepy scenario while cultivating (but not overplaying) its central metaphor about what happens to a society born out of violence which loses track of the context of that violence. Unfortunately, its also the only story which feel a bit rushed as an anthology segment. We can guess where this is going, but the story zips along to the big conclusion without the pleasure of milking the menace for awhile. The other three segments make great, self-contained short stories, but this one probably deserved a novella.

I mention literary equivalents because one of the most intriguing and successful aspects of this film is that it truly captures the feeling of an effective short story. Most anthologies superficially mimic the abbreviated form of storytelling, but few capture the profoundly mysterious quality of the best short fiction, which often isn't so much interested in telling a story as it is at hinting at a story and letting your mind fill in the gaps. The best short fiction suggests rather than tells; few short film anthologies seem to really understand that. This one, for whatever reason, has that lyrical, amorphous quality of cultivating mood and mystery with a few simple strokes and letting the viewer do the work of exploring the dark corners it only hints at. Which is not to say that its some sort of arty narrative-free tone poem; each segment tells a complete story. But what lingers is the shapeless darkness which pervades each story, ties them together, and brings forth something a little more menacing than the straightforward horror show that exists on the surface.

The director here is Jeff Burr, who impressed Vincent Price enough to sign onto one of his last film roles. This was his first big film, but he would on to be a prolific director of shitty sequels to horror films like TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III, and sequels to PUMPKINHEAD, PUPPET MASTER, STEPFATHER, and others. Too bad, because here he shows serious promise. This one is intriguing and unique and deserves a place in any horror anthology buff's heart.

1 comment:

  1. My memory of this one is too vague for me to make any incisive comments about it. Although I do seem to recall, as you note here, that the last two stories are weaker then the first two, so you leave with a sense of disappointment. If they had maybe swapped stories 2 and 4, the overall experience might have been more satisfying.

    Have you had a chance to watch THE LOST yet? I'm kinda curious to hear your take on it.