Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Dark Shadows, The 1973 Tapes: Beyond the Grave


You Are Entering a Dimension of Sight, Sound, and Spoilers Ahead.

“Good luck, Mrs. Ripperton. You’ll need it.”

Despite the quirky insulation of the Big Finish fandom, there was a certain amount of hype surrounding some stories. As the Society’s new Audio Correspondent, it was hard not to get swept up in some of it before listening. Bloodlust was one for example. People had said how amazing it was and it made good on it. The incoming The Happier Dead is another. I have been told by fans (more than likely someone on Twitter) that it is one of the scariest audios out there and I have to say, I think about that a lot as it looms. BUT one always, always, always was touted above all of the others. And that story is the subject of today’s column, Beyond the Grave! The culmination of the range’s stab at serialization, this story is wonderful shake up of the range’s formats so far, making this much more of a conceptual piece than an actor’s showcase. Since the start of this arc Beyond The Grave has been a creeping presence in the background and now we get one hell of a payoff in this stunning “lost TV special”.

Found Footage as a subgenre is kind of hit or miss. We, as horror fans can pretty much all agree on that and we can’t agree on much ever, right? But Beyond the Grave kind of does the impossible and translates the tropes and conventions of the subgenre brilliantly into audio. Scripted by Aaron Lamont and masterfully directed by David Darlington, Darren Gross, and Jim Pierson, the former providing a wonderful remix of the show’s iconic theme with a gloomy television theme tune, this story establishes it’s rules and narrative confines early on and then promptly starts using them to scare the absolute shit out of you. And it bloody well does! More than once as I listened, I had to take out one of my earbuds and regain my bearings in my office because I was good and spooked out. All thanks to this thing’s steady, skin-crawling build and dynamite direction and sound design.

TV presenter Tom Lacey, played with an affable charm by Stephen Kelly, has been snooping through the background of Collinsport here lately and now we know why. A live TV special on Halloween night exploring the weird history of Collinsport, in particular the dark legend of “Mad Jack”, a spirit that reportedly haunts Eagle Hill Cemetery. The plan was for Tom to play host in Maine while the luminous and steely Kate Ripperton (the welcome return of Asta Parry to my audio coverage) quarterbacks from the studio back in England, taking calls from viewers. But things went wrong. Oh, so horribly wrong and the result is one of the best audios the Big Finish Dark Shadows range has ever produced.

But Beyond the Grave really succeeds not only as a horror story, because woof, it really does, but as a culmination of this arc’s move toward more ambitious, serialized stories. This whole arc has had somewhat of a loose structure and Beyond the Grave was the web that was starting to weave through that structure with each script at least mentioning or establishing some sort of connection to Tom and the show, promising a payoff down the line. Though it isn’t expressly connected to any one story from the arc, as the concept of it give it a certain narratively air-gapped feel away from the overarching plot threads, it feels like a neatly novel way to have your cake and eat it too when it comes to a resolution to all those hints and shoutouts in earlier episodes.

And seriously, everyone, I just can. Not. stress. enough. just how goddamn scary this one is. I think of myself as someone who can handle this genre fairly well and I have, to be honest, for quite some time. But this thing truly made my skin crawl and it did so with the littlest things pretty early. One fantastic example is the way a certain gag is mixed into tracks of the story. Early on in the “broadcast”, in between some banter from Tom and Kate, what sounds like a scream pierces through the audio. When I first heard it, my blood ran cold. It was like I was back in high school having just found a website talking about the creepy vocal track of “Love Rollercoaster” and I was turning white. But then the script doubles down on it, having a few bewildered callers call Kate and COMPLAIN. And it only gets scarier from there! I’m talking rage killings, a live on air possession, and more creepy sound effects and modulations than you or I would even know what to do with! Think you’ve got nerves of steel? Then listen to Beyond the Grave in darkened office in ill-fitting earbuds if you think you got the SAND! I sure as hell didn’t! I finished it huddled around a lamp after turning half the lights in the building on.

Hype is often a dangerous thing but I can safely say Beyond the Grave lives up to its reputation and I have the goosebumps to prove it. Immaculately directed, mixed, and scored by a trio of talented technicians and graced with a slow, horrifying burn of a script brought to life by a troupe of gamely talented actors this audio thriller is the best of what the range and the franchise has to offer. In all of it’s chilling glory. Just don’t listen to it without the lights on.

NEXT TIME! The Harvest of Souls by James Goss! Maggie Evans NO MORE and The Return of Gerald Conway! Until then, be seeing you.     

The complete 1973 saga:

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 justin@betweenthepanels.com Odds are he will want to talk about Hellblazer.

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