From a Whisper to a Scream isn’t as celebrated as a lot of other horror entries from the 1980s, such as Friday the 13th (1980), The Thing (1982), or A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), but in the years since it’s release it has developed a considerable cult following. One of the primary reasons for this interest is because the film was a throwback, a sort of last gasp of air for a dying sub-subgenre—the Vincent Price horror anthology. At the time, Price was wrapping up the final act of his life (he would die six years after the film’s release). Although Price had appeared in everything from comedies to westerns, he was now viewed as being primarily a horror actor, his status as a genre icon solidified by an appearance on Michael Jackson’s 1982 mega-hit “Thriller.” By this time, Price was very closely associated with the horror anthology subgenre, having appeared in a handful of them, including Tales of Terror (1962), Twice-Told Tales (1963), and The Monster Club (1981).
From a Whisper to a Scream originated with five friends, all of whom shared a singular dream of working in the film industry. These friends and housemates, C. Courtney Joyner, Darin Scott, Mike Malone, Jeff Burr, and his brother, Bill Burr, decided to join forces and craft their own anthology similar to the ones popularized by British film company Amicus Productions. The idea was that Joyner, Scott, Malone, and Jeff Burr would each write a vignette, and Jeff would then direct.
“We all loved the anthology format,” explains Joyner. “It was also practical. Lots of indie movies were started and then never completed for lack of funds, and we didn’t want to get stuck that way. So we thought if we did separate stories, then if we did run out of money, there would be something complete in itself to show investors, rather than a lot of bits and pieces. Fortunately that was something that we didn’t have to resort to, but it was part of the initial thinking.”
Joyner and Jeff Burr had previously collaborated in an attempt to make a movie called Nightcrawlers, but had found themselves unable to secure the necessary financing. Now fully aware of just how difficult it was to raise money for a feature, Jeff Burr and Darin Scott formed a new company and then went to work raising money. Soon the group secured financing from investors in Georgia, where it was decided the film would be shot on location.
The resulting screenplay would consist of four vignettes, each of which would take place during different periods of history in a fictitious town called Oldfield, Tennessee. “We felt that making them period stories, dating back to the Civil War, would separate us from the usual anthologies of the time, which were usually one modern tale after another,” recalls Joyner. The concept was that the segments would be introduced by a historian character named Julian White, to a reporter, in a wraparound sequence shot after the fact. In a fortuitious instance, the filmmakers somehow convinced Vincent Price to assay the role in this tiny picture being made by a group of then-inexperienced filmmakers.
One of the first people the filmmakers contacted for a cameo was Famous Monsters of Filmland editor Forrest J. “Forry” Ackerman, whom they hoped might play a priest in the film’s execution scene. But Ackerman passed on the project. Unfortunately, for reasons no one seems to know or understand, Ackerman then took it upon himself to try to discourage Price from appearing in the film, as well.
Ackerman’s attempt to dissuade Price would prove unsuccessful, and Price eventually signed the contracts. Once Price was on board, Joyner and Burr sought to expand his role and dialogue in an effort to get more bang for their buck. However, these changes didn’t sit well with the actor, who called his friend, film historian and project liaison David Del Valle, to emphatically state that he would not allow them. “He said, ‘You tell those hacks that I won’t work with them if they change a single word of what we agreed on,’” remembers Del Valle, who also makes a cameo in the film. After hearing this, the filmmakers wisely chose to to move forward without the revisions.
With Price now a part of the cast, From a Whisper to a Scream would ultimately feature a cavalcade of talented performers, including Cameron Mitchell, Clu Gulager, Susan Tyrell, Rosalind Cash, and Angelo Rossito.
One of the film’s segments finds Gulager’s character attempting to date his attractive boss and then later having sexual relations with his freshly-dead spouse (played by Gulager’s real-life wife, Miriam Byrd-Nethery). “Courtney Joyner wrote that segment, and it was a lot of fun,” Gulager recalls. “We all had a good time, and they gave me the freedom a nut like me desired. I really liked the way Jeff Burr handled my character. He’s a very inventive filmmaker. He doesn’t hold back. This was his first film, so he was probably anxious, but it didn’t show.”
Gulager, a prolific actor whose career began in the mid-1950s, is probably best known for his work in Return of the Living Dead (1985). But Gulager, Jeff Burr’s former acting coach, says his From a Whisper to a Scream character is the quirkiest of his career. Gulager says he enjoyed having the opportunity to sing onscreen, which he says he didn’t do as well as he might have liked, but says the most pleasurable aspect of the shoot was his necrophilia scene. “Having the chance to breed with a corpse was the best part,” Gulager jokes. “I absolutely loved fucking a woman who was dead. That was wonderful, and I’d advise everyone to try it sometime!”
Another segment in the film follows the journey of an escaped criminal in the 1950s. While on the lam, he encounters a mysterious man who holds the secret of immortality. “I had always been intrigued by ‘The Monkey’s Paw,’ where a person is granted wishes, but they all backfire spectacularly,” explains Scott, who wrote the vignette. “The Jessie character seeks eternal life. He gets it, but not the way he wants it.”
Joyner enjoyed spending time in Georgia making the film, and says his fondest memories involve getting to know some of the actors. “I adored Rosalind Cash, and got to spend a good deal of time with Angelo Rossito, talking about Lugosi and Monogram and Tod Browning.” Scott concurs that meeting the veteran players was an enjoyable experience, and he’s particularly fond of the time he spent with Rossito, making his final screen appearance. “Carrying 77-year-old Angelo Rossito around the set piggy-back because it would take him too long to make the walks was my favorite part of the shoot,” remembers Scott.
Another highlight was shooting the wraparound sequences with Vincent Price at Roger Corman’s studio in Venice Beach, where Price and Corman had collaborated on a number of classic genre pictures. “I remember standing with Roger Corman on our set,” says Joyner. “He looked around the decayed library, and dead-panned, ‘You know, I think I made this film about twenty times.”
The film would prove to be a memorable viewing experience, and its inventive script, crafted as an homage to films like Asylum (1972), which the filmmakers all loved, would be bolstered by fine performances. The scenes between Price and Tyrell, which were shot in a mere two days, would prove to be particularly memorable. All of the performances would be first-rate, but Gulager provides a particularly delicious turn here, conveying an impressive enthusiasm for his quirky role.
The film would eventually be released by distributor TMS Pictures, who then changed its title to the far more bland The Offspring. (Its original title would later be restored for DVD releases.) This was done so the film could be paired in an AIP-style double bill with another film, The Outing (1987). Initial critical reception was mixed at best, but the film would eventually develop a significant following in the decades that followed. The project is significant because it was one of Price’s final horror films. It also launched the careers of Burr, Scott, and Joyner, all of whom have since enjoyed some level of success in the film industry.
“My favorite aspect of From a Whisper to a Scream is that we made it our way, with virtually no previous film experience,” reflects Scott. “We managed to get an iconic cast, we got a theatrical release, and the film still has a sizeable base of fans. I’m very proud of what we accomplished.”
“We’re all still friends,” explains Joyner. “We started that way, and just continued, all of us on to our own careers, sometimes still working together on projects. From the shoot, the greatest things friendship-wise were that we all got closer to the Gulagers, and we all became family. That was a long time ago now, and we all still see each other. We have a bond that began before the movie, and it’s never weakened in the years since. That’s a very nice legacy for a low-budget horror flick.”