Oct 26, 2014

From a Whisper to a Scream

When I was about 10 or 11, I received a box full of old ex-rental horror VHS tapes that were donated to a library and ultimately and thankfully came into my hands. That auspiciously received box proved to be a horror university for me as it included classics like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Dan O'Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead (1985), but also more obscure works like Avery Crounse’s Eyes of Fire (1983), Katt Shea’s Stripped to Kill (1987), and Dan Hoskin’s Chopper Chicks in Zombietown (1989) featuring a then-unknown Billy Bob Thornton. While all of these films have been permanently burned into my mind for one reason another, the relatively dead serious ‘folk horror’ anthology From a Whisper to a Scream (1987) aka The Offspring directed by Jeff Burr (Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, Night of the Scarecrow) holds a special place in my blackened heart in terms of hateful horror flicks. A sort of ‘southern gothic horror’ featuring a necrophiliac old nerd killing the retarded sister he regularly gives baths to, hick criminals killing colored folk, and confederate bastard children killing Yankee soldiers, From a Whisper to a Scream (which, until relatively recently, I thought was called simply ‘The Offspring’ due to the fact that it was originally released in the U.S. under that title) is a film that I thought was a total piece of shit when I first saw it as a kid and, while I still believe that to some extent, the film has never left my mind, so I thought that, considering it is the Halloween season and all, it was a better time than ever to re-watch the film for the first time in nearly two decades. The film is noted for, among other things, featuring scream screen aristocrat Vincent Price, who refused to star in horror films at the time due to being typecast, in his final role in a horror film (though he would later appear in the goofy zombie-themed action-comedy Dead Heat (1988)) as an old Tennessee historian who acts as the storyteller of the frame story in between segments of the anthology. Somewhat interestingly, director Jeff Burr showed up at Price’s house with a bottle of wine (Price was a wine connoisseur) and the script to From a Whisper to a Scream in a desperate attempt to get the veteran actor to star in the film and the rest is history. Oftentimes described as a Creepshow rip-off, Burr’s film is much more brutal than the Romero-King anthology as it lacks the audience-comforting dark humor, as a cruel yet creamy country fried hick-heavy horror show where various deadly confederate degenerates get their just desserts. By no means art of any sort, From a Whisper to a Scream is just good old B-grade shock and scare Southern celluloid Americana that reminds the viewer why the deep south makes the best and most atmospheric setting for American scare flicks. 

 A blond middle-aged journalist with a chic 1980s dyke cut named Beth Chandler (played by cult diva Susan Tyrrell of Richard Elfman’s Forbidden Zone (1980) and Marco Ferreri’s Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981)) decides to visit the quaint home/library of a historian after witnessing the state sanctioned execution of his niece in prison via lethal injection. The historian’s name is Julian White (Vincent Price) and he is reasonably annoyed when reporter Beth rudely walks into his library after business hours. When Beth asks about his niece who was just executed for murdering a number of men starting when she was just 7 and ending when she was caught at 32, Julian remarks, “It all ended tonight…but there will be more” and proceeds to explain how his Tennessee hometown of Oldfield has “a long history of violence…it’s as though the very foundation of this place was…human suffering.” From there, Julian begins to tell four sordid stories from Oldfield’s past that span from the recent past to all the way back to the American Civil War, thus hinting that the south has been cursed ever since the Confederacy was destroyed in what was ultimately the deadliest war in American history.  If one thing is for, it is that the savagery and sadism of Sherman's legacy is very much alive in the hearts and minds of the accursed populous of good old Oldfield.

 The first chapter of the film is set in contemporary times and revolves around a seemingly half-autistic old nerd with slicked back bleach blond hair who works as a meager grocery clerk Stanley Burnside (played by Clu Gulager in what is easily one of his more memorable, revolting, and overlooked roles). On top of having nightmares about performing cunnilingus on corpses and giving ice bathes to his half-retarded sister named Eileen (played by Gulager’s then-wife Miriam Byrd-Nethery) who has an incestuous crush for him, Stanley has a disturbing crush on his beauteous boss Grace (Megan McFarland) that ultimately has deadly results. Indeed, after somehow coercing Grace into going on a dinner date with him, he impulsively strangles her to death in his car after she aggressively rejects his rather grotesque kisses and mocks his patently pathetic love for her (she tells him, “you just don’t have it” and that he is a “pathetic joke”). Of course, Stanley is still in love with Grace, so he breaks into a church and fucks her corpse. Flash forward seven months later and Stanley is enjoying life aside from the fact that his retarded sister keeps trying to put the moves on him, so he violently strangles her to death in a fit of repressed rage while giving her a bath. Not long after that, a small Ghoulies-esque creature rises from Grace’s grave, which proves to be Stanley's bastard demon seed son (hence, the film’s alternative title The Offspring). When the deformed mutant spawn arrives at the nefarious nerd’s house, Stanley hilarious threatens it like a good ol' boy by stating, “Don’t you fuck with me boy.” Needless to say the prodigal son gets all ominously Oedipal against its deranged daddy. 

 The second and antepenultimate chapter of the film is set in the 1950s and revolves around a trailer-dwelling small-time con hick named Jesse Hardwick (played by Terry Kiser, who played the eponymous corpse in the Weekend at Bernie's films) who is mortally wounded after his trailer slut sells him out to two criminals that he has just double-crossed. Jesse manages to fall in a small rowboat before collapsing and drifts out into a swamp before awakening in the shadowy shack of an old voodoo-inclined negro named Felder Evans (Harry Caesar), who has taken it upon himself to nurse the redneck back to the health. As Jesse snoops around the old spook’s dilapidated shack when he is away, he learns that Felder is a 200-year-old ex-slave who has lived many full lives. Naturally, Jesse demands that Felder show him the voodoo secret to eternal life, which he agrees to do, but the rowdy redneck has ADD and does not have the patience to learn, so he knocks the old man out and threatens to drown him the next day if he doesn’t give him the potion to eternal life. Of course, Jesse loses his cool and kills the old kindly colored witchdoctor, but the black black magician rather predictably comes back to life and takes revenge at his would-be-killer. After tying Jesse to some sort of makeshift voodoo curse device, Felder reveals that he had already given him the potion and adds, “I already gave you the potion, Jesse…and you tried to kill me for something you already had.” After revealing to Jesse that he has given him enough potion to live another “70 years or more,” Felder takes his revenge by quartering his body with an ax and setting it on fire. In the end, Jesse’s burnt and dismembered undead corpse waits for 70 years to die in a hospital. 

 The third and penultimate segment of the film is set in the 1930s at a carnival called ‘Lovecraft’s Traveling Amusements’ in tribute to American Spenglerian horror literary master H.P. Lovecraft and is about a glass-eating entertainer named Steven Arden (Ron Brooks) who falls in love with a sweet local blonde girl named Amarrillis Caulfield (Didi Lanier). Unfortunately, the glass-eater's boss, an overtly and proudly evil ebony beastess named ‘The Snakewoman’ (played by Rosalind Cash, who is best known for playing Charlton Heston’s love interest in The Omega Man (1971)) who runs the carnival like a brothel and treats her employees like white slaves, is jealous of Amarrillis and wants to keep her freaks in servitude. A voodoo witch, the Snakewoman has given all freaks, who are all escaped convicts, their special powers. The Snakewoman also has the power to torture and kill her freaks voodoo style merely by using a piece of their hair or a drop of their blood. When Steven and his lover Amarrillis manage to escape together with the help of a kind dwarf, everything seems perfect, at least until the Snakewoman tears the glass-eater’s bodies to shreds. The Snakewoman forces Amarrillis to take Steven’s place in the circus and she becomes ‘Amarrillis the Human Pin Cushion.’  Notably, unlike virtually all the other killer's of the film, the Snakewoman is the only murderous character featured in the entire movie that does not meet a grizzly end, not to mention the fact that the two morally pristine young lovers also meet tragic ends, thus making it a somewhat odd and nonsensical part of From a Whisper to a Scream, as if the director could not think of a good way to conclude the piece and merely tacked on a contrived ending at the last minute.

 The fourth and final segment of the film is set during the end of the American Civil War and centers around a mean and murderous Union sergeant named Gallen (Cameron Mitchell) who forces his men to kill every single confederate soldier in sight, including those surrendering. After agreeing to rape any southern women they can find and shooting one of their comrades for desertion even though they have just learned that the war has ended, Gallen and his men eventually end up at an old plantation house in Oldfield that is occupied by sadistic confederate war orphans who hate adults. Within seconds of being at the heavily guarded home, one of the sergeant’s men is stabbed in the genitals by the leader of killer confederate children due to his somewhat unruly and typically rude and uncultivated northern behavior. While imprisoned in the house of children-ruled confederate horror, Gallen tricks a sweet crippled girl named Amanda (Ashli Bare) into thinking that he will adopt her so that she will untie him. When Amanda unties him, Gallen opts for breaking her little neck instead of adopting her. When Gallen escapes from the house, he finds the child soldiers playing games with the dismembered limbs of his comrades. Of course, the children eventually kill him and introduce him to their leader, ‘The Magistrate,’ which is a sort of human scarecrow made out of the dismembered limbs of all the orphan’s dead parents. In the end, the children ritualistically kill Gallen by setting him on fire and American flag is lifted in a glorious fashion while the leader of the orphans stoically declares, “Brothers and Sisters, the time has come to rebuild Oldfield and to restore her to her former glory.” In an absurd twist ending to From a Whisper to a Scream, after the four stories have been told, journalist Beth kills librarian Julian by throwing a switchblade at his throat after revealing she developed a quasi-Sapphic relationship with his recently deceased niece via letter correspondence. Apparently, Beth believed she had the right to kill Julian because he “poisoned” his late niece’s mind.  Indeed, it seems that Beth is one of those university-lobotomized and slave-morality-ridden urban feminists who do not believe that women should be held accountable for their own actions.

 Despite agreeing to star in From a Whisper to a Scream, Vincent Price would later express regret in a letter to his friend, German actor and puppeteer Gerd J. Pohl, claiming that his agent had misrepresented the film and he had been trapped in a contract, even though it was actually director Jeff Burr who convinced him to star in the movie in the first place. Indeed, as Burr explained in a 2012 interview featured at the website of drag performer/filmmaker Peaches Christ regarding how he randomly showed up at Price's house and convinced him to be in the film: “We came bearing gifts, and wouldn’t you know… he opened the door himself when we knocked! It was a flurry of “Gee, Mr. Price, we’re fans of your work…” and “we wrote this script,” and he actually invited us inside. He had every reason to ignore us, and even if it was on a polite level, he could have said, “Okay boys, contact my agent,” but he was just so gracious. He invited us in, sat and talked with us for about 15 minutes, took the script, and that’s how it all started.”  Despite Price's unkind words regarding the film, Burr, however, only had good things to say about the actor, stating he was “professional, gracious, and accommodating” in spite of the fact that it was probably “the lowest budget film [Price] ever made as a professional.” Of course, Mr. Price makes for a much more charismatic storyteller than the Crypt Keeper and From a Whisper to a Scream is ultimately worth seeing just to see old Dr. Anton Phibes declare, “Lovecraft and Poe…I’ll drink to those two masters of horror!” while sipping on wine. Luckily, Burr’s film manages to also transcend simple sensationalist horror tradition as an eclectically grotesque confederate gothic nightmare that ultimately makes a connection between the atrocities committed by Union General Sherman and his men against the South to the sorry state of the confederates today. Indeed, unlike exploitation trash like hick-hating Hebrew Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964), From a Whisper to a Scream is a work of the south and not made to make fun of Dixie. After all, director Burr grew up in Georgia and his first feature was the Award Winning American Civil War flick Divided We Fall (1982). Interestingly, Burr only credits three of his films—From a Whisper to a Scream, the dramedy Eddie Presley (1992), and the horror-war hybrid Straight into Darkness (2004)—as being the only works of his ‘own,’ as the others had been butchered by the studios, or as the director stated himself, there were, “decisions that were made, in my estimation, that weren’t the best. So, those are the three I stand behind without a mountain of qualifications.” If one thing is for sure, Hollywood would never produced a horror film as sick nor as shamelessly southern as From a Whisper to a Scream, which is a work that you might suspect would be directed by the rampantly heterosexual necrophile nephew of Tennessee Williams. 

-Ty E

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