Monday, April 23, 2012

Review: Dress Me in Dark Dreams

(To read our exclusive interview with Marty Ross, the writer of Dress Me in Dark Dreams, click HERE.)

Audio dramas pose very specific kinds of storytelling challenges. I’ve tended to think of these challenges in terms of writing, because the script is the first line of defense (and possibly offense) when it comes to solving storytelling issues. As with music, audio dramas have to convey their intention using only sound, and I imagine a script for a Big Finish story not only includes dialogue, but sound and music cues, as well. A Big Finish production probably looks orchestral on paper.

While listening to the latest Big Finish release, Dress Mein Dark Dreams, I realized that the medium also presents a challenge for the actors, as well. Tim Curry was reportedly crestfallen when director Ridley Scott asked him to wear contact lenses in the movie Legend, because his eyes were the only parts of the actor’s body not covered my make-up appliances. Curry was worried that he’d lost his last connection to the audience, and that the make-up turned him into a glorified puppeteer whose job was to essentially manipulate a costume offscreen.

The actors in audio dramas have no visual connection with their audience, not even a proxy connection like Curry’s heavy make-up, forcing them to dig a little deeper into their bag of tricks. When I’ve told people about the Dark Shadows audio dramas, I’ve taken on a very apologetic tone and have asked people to forgive their seemingly anachronistic qualities. After listening to Dress Me in Dark Dreams, though, I think it’s time to acknowledge how goddamn difficult it is to tell an effective story using only dialogue and sound effects. There’s a very specific skill set involved with creating these stories, and they are skills that would confound the Michael Bays of the world.
Creating an audio drama has its challenges, but so does writing about them. The Dark Shadows series are mysteries, which makes discussing their twists and turns incredibly difficult without spoiling the experience for new listeners. If you’re trying to avoid spoilers, it’s safe to proceed further.

Dress Me in Dark Dreams is set roughly 25 years before the 1897 television story and stars Amber Benson as a young Judith Trask, a role played in the original series by Joan Bennett. Resentful of the freedoms and attentions granted to her brothers, Judith spends much of her days with her grandmother, Edith, who does her best to discourage Judith’s rebellious spirit. Judith is cast very much from the Disney Princess mold in this story, and her arc plays out a little like a gothic version of The Little Mermaid. Judith is slowly seduced by specter in a rarely visited area of Collinwood, a man who is probably not the figment of her imagination that she initially believes, and it becomes steadily apparent that Edith knows more about the situation than she wants to reveal. 

Appearing with Benson is Terry Crawford, reprising her role as Edith Collins. I’ve seen the entire run of the original Dark Shadows twice, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I never realized that Edith Collins of 1840 and grandmother Edith in 1897 are the same person. It’s possible that continuity errors in the original show contributed to my confusion but, either way, Crawford is a welcome presence here.

Dress Me in Dark Dreams isn’t the fastest paced Dark Shadows story produced by Big Finish, and it suffers from some of the same problems of formula shared by previous installments (the antagonists in a lot of these stories tend to be phantom voices) but the writing has a lot of vivid, effective imagery. There's a sexuality in this story rarely seen in Dark Shadows and, though it is mostly symbolic, it underlines the tale's theme of innocence lost. While many of the story’s conflicts could have been quickly resolved in Edith has just explained the situation to Judith, the episode does a fine job of connecting two chapters in the Dark Shadows mythos while also embellishing characters that were originally a little underwritten.

I was initially concerned about Benson’s casting when it was announced, but I was also interested to see if Benson would affect an overt impression of Bennett in the story. She does not, which is probably the best possible decision. Considering their age difference, it makes more sense for Judith to be less formal and more impulsive, and she is not yet the repressive spinster we see in the original series. What’s interesting is that this story actually transforms her 1897 arc into a tragedy because, as a young woman, she was resentful and terrified of the loneliness that Collinwood bred.  It also goes a long way toward explaining the cruel, violent manner in which she responds to her later heartbreak.

Dress Me in Dark Dreams isn’t my favorite of the Big Finish audio dramas (The Skin Walkers is still reigning champion) but anyone who loves the 1897 story arc will probably enjoy what Dress Me in Dark Dreams brings to the table. I say check it out.


Erica said...

Nothing to be embarrassed about, continuity-wise. As I recall, Edith in 1840 was murdered by Gabriel. So how could she be the same Edith in 1897? (I know, I know, it's Dark Shadows. Don't ask too many questions.)

Anonymous said...

I just consider this audio a part of the parallel time collection of stories. Technically, Edith wouldn't have died in 1840 if Barnabas & Julia hadn't gone back in time, thus Edith would have lived to become the old woman that we see in 1897.

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