A Whisper to a Scream
1989, Starring Nadia Capone, Yaphet Kotto, Lawrence Bayne, Silvio Oliviero. Directed by Robert Bergman.
Who would have thought that a film set in a strip club could turn out so boring? Robert Bergman and Jerry Ciccoritti began their filmmaking careers with tongues planted firmly in cheeks on films like Psycho Girls and Skull: A Night of Terror, but 1989's A Whisper to a Scream represented a new bold direction for the pair an attempt to cut free from their B-horror roots and move into new genres. But when a film ostensibly about phone sex and stripper slayings is prefaced with a quote from Ovid's Metamorphosis, you can bet a fistful of Canadian Tire money that it's being taken much too seriously by those involved.
Don't get too worked up by the potentially sleazy plot: A Whisper to a Scream's sole point of interest is that it happens to be the first Canadian film appearance by Yaphet Kotto, the star of 1970s genre classics Across 110th Street (1972), Live and Let Die (1973) and Alien (1979), who popped up in a few low-rent Canuxploitation films after moving to Toronto in the 1980s. As the investigating police officer Detective Jules Tallard, Kotto doesn't even show up until about halfway through, so until he appears, the audience must make due with a series of weird erotic dances by Nadia Capone, a sometime-actress and the wife of Canadian film and TV mainstay Nick Mancuso.
This time, Capone stars as Gabrielle, a B-movie actress (natch) who lands the role of a phone sex operator. A friend recommends she spend a few weeks manning the backroom sex line of "gentleman's club" called Sybil's Cave to properly research the profession. At first she doesn't like the idea, but soon discovers that Sybil's Cave isn't your typical strip club. Instead of shiny poles and badly distorted Def Leppard songs, it's more of an erotic performance art venue in which girls with elaborate spandex costumes do their best impressions of a walking underwater.
The 80s synthesizer music that underscores these performances is provided by the club's DJ and announcer, Olwyn (Lawrence Bayne). Not only does Olwyn spin these Wyndham Hill-inspired tracks for the girls, but he also writes them in his spare time at home. His latest composition is his most ambitious yet, an eerie keyboard oratorio which Olwyn intends to complete with recorded samples of the cries and squeals of girls in the throes of death.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle quickly takes to the glamorous world of talking dirty on the phone for money. When Olwyn hears her voice in the backroom, he figures she is the perfect accompaniment to his cheesy Casio track, and shuffles back to his candlelit booth to call her. Gabrielle impersonates the suspiciously heavy accents of the other dancers that work in the club, frustrating Olwyn, who only wants to talk to her. When dancers start to turn up dead the day after Gabrielle imitates them, she starts to wonder if the killer caller might be her greasy boyfriend Frank, a tortured artist with a ponytail and a weakness for cheating with strippers. To out him as the murderer, Gabrielle dresses up as the anonymous "Golden Girl" and choreographs a strip/dance routine set to a recording of one of the phone conversations. She hopes Frank will fall in love with "Golden Girl" and then she will reveal it was her all along. Not only will this win Frank back, but it will also serve as a warning before Detective Tallard (Kotto) figures it all out.
When you strip away the specious allusions to classical mythology, all that's left is a run-of-the-mill "erotic thriller," and an extremely contrived one at that. Gabrielle is just working the phones to research her acting rolewhy not leave when Olwyn's calls start coming in? Why the lingering desire for emotionally unstable Frank, and why such a stupid plan to get him back? Of course, some of this could be forgiven if A Whisper to a Scream delivered on its implied promises, but it rarely does, with all sleaziness taking a backseat to the needlessly overwritten and under-conceived script. Silvio Oliviero and Isabelle Merchant from Bergman and Ciccoritti's " stock company" of dependable actors make appearances, but the multi-ethnic Sybil's Cave dancers (several of whom seem to be real strippers) help bury the film with overdone accents meant to be easily copied by Capone's character, turning each one into a ridiculous caricature.
Whereas Ciccoritti and Bergman's past films made some concessions to Canadiana, either in plot or setting, I was disappointed to find that A Whisper to a Scream is easily their least patriotic. There's very little location work almost all of the film takes place inside cramped smoky clubs or apartments, with particularly generic-looking backstreets of Toronto making just a few appearances.
The underlying failure of the film doesn't lie with the script, the acting, or the lack of CanCon, thoughthe real problem is that director Robert Bergman and producer Jerry Ciccoritti mistakenly dropped the campier style of their earlier efforts, and A Whisper to a Scream just drags throughout its 96 minutes. A lighter tone had the ability to make their pretensions somewhat acceptable earlier, but this is the kind of straight-to-video Canadian fare that fades into the background with little to distinguish it from its peers.