Thursday, November 8, 2018

Review: The Tony & Cassandra Mysteries Series 2, “The Mystery of West Vale Sanitarium”

Editor's note: The Tony & Cassandra Mysteries Series 2 is now available at Big Finish!


The world needs bad men, Marty. Bad men keep the SPOILERS AHEAD from the door.

“A trip to a spooky sanitarium in the middle of the night? Sounds like my idea of a perfect date!”

The Tony & Cassandra Mysteries Series 2 takes a hard right turn into more grounded horror with “The Mystery of West Vale Sanitarium.” Written by newcomers to the series Tanja Milojevic and Joshua J. Price and given resonant, sometimes heartbreaking direction by Darren Gross and David Darlington (who also continues to KILL it on the music here), this episode could arguably be the darkest episode this series has produced thus far. It also makes a pretty damn good case for being one of the best. Though still brimming with supernatural intrigue and the heartfelt interplay between our heroes, “The Mystery of West Vale Sanitarium” taps into a deep vein of visceral, realistic horror, much to this series benefit.

But don’t let my gloomy preamble rattle you, readers. There is still plenty of fun to be found in this installment as well. We even get a few returning favorites just to sweeten the pot! This episode’s script reels you in with a typically charming opening. Cassandra is eagerly awaiting their first applicant for the secretary position while Tony is, as per usual, grousing about how they don’t need a new one. And in walks Alice Wilkes, the pair’s...for lack of a better term, companion during Series 1’s stand out episode “The Mystery of Flight 493”! She is once again played by the luminous Sydney Aldridge and she fits right in with the banter heavy pair. This turn is also delightful just on a fan level for me as that episode, and her character in particular, really popped upon first listen and it is nice to see this series having a somewhat loose, but satisfying continuity.

That continuity even extends to this episode’s plot. Alice isn’t but two minutes on the job when she is possessed by the restless spirit of the dearly departed Rita Channing. She has been attempting to reach out for days but finally found a strong enough vessel in Alice in order to deliver a dire message. Someone is harming children at the West Vale Sanitarium and our heroes must set it right before she can rest. We will get into how deeply investing and emotional this plot is in a second, but again I just want to stress how cool it is that this release has built up it’s own little corner of Maine within the Dark Shadows efforts. It also speaks to David Darlington’s sound design AND Aldridge’s performance that I genuinely could not tell if it was all Aldridge’s voice plus some modulation or some sort of layering of Julia Duffy on top of the effects and dialogue, but either way, it sounded tremendous and really hooked me deep early on.

And then the rest of the episode just got me even more. As our duo starts to look into the crumbling ward, they discover insidiously evil experiments on supernaturally gifted children. Led by a doctor, Tom Michael Blyth’s Dr. Miles Wellington, who thinks he can “cure” the children with invasive surgeries and lobotomies. Though it is revealed that one of his nurses, Natalie Roth (played with a calm, cool villainy by Abi Harris) is warding the sanitarium and helping the process along, I was really and truly struck by how this antagonist was so disgustingly human and mundane. It is really the banality of evil that elevates this episode’s plot and gives it a striking humanity.  It is even even further enhanced by Jake Wardle’s touching performance as Billy, a patient and psychic, and a tender moment in the episode’s finale between series lead’s Parker and Lacy, which they play so beautifully, backed by Darlington’s wonderful score. Writers Price and Milojevic give us the worst and best of people in this episode, delivering a sophomore installment that capitalizes well on the screwball fun of the series opener.

I know that going from murderous cartoon characters to ghoulish experiments on gifted children is pretty jarring on a tonal level, but “The Mystery of West Vale Sanitarium” downshifts very well, giving us both heart and horror in equal measure. The relationship between Tony and Cassandra is blossoming well here and hearing them both, along with their plucky new secretary, getting put through the emotional ringer and coming out the other side much stronger was a truly satisfying experience as a fan and listener. I really think you guys are going to like this one, if only just for the deep emotional core it has.

NEXT TIME! “The Mystery of Apartment 493” by Alan Flanagan! The show’s second “493” episode. I love that this release has like it’s own themed episode now. If it is anything like “Flight 493” then we are in for a real treat. Be seeing you!

Justin Partridge has always loved monsters and he thinks that explains a lot about him. When he isn’t over analyzing comics at Newsarama or ranting about Tom Clancy over at Rogues Portal, he is building Call of Cthulhu games, spreading the good word of Anti-Life, or rewatching Garth Marenghi's Darkplace for the dozenth time. He can be reached at the gasping Lovecraftian void that is Twitter @j_partridgeIII or via e-mail at Odds are he will want to talk about Hellblazer.  

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