“TALES FROM BEYOND THE PALE: SEASON THREE” (Audio Review)Books/Art/Culture,News,Reviews Ken W. Hanley
It’s been two years since TALES FROM BEYOND THE PALE clawed its way into the ears of fright fans, with select live outings to satiate the interested while Season Three of the radio play series was in development. However, luckily for purveyors of audio horror, the wait was not in vain, as the months of development have led to TALES strongest season to date, providing bold, wickedly entertaining stories that stir up one’s imagination with mischievous glee. And furthermore, with an assembly of terrific performers and storytellers by their side, there’s an inherently unique air about this season of TALES that certainly separates it from season’s past, offering a structural and tonal continuity that impressively feels much more carefully curated than previous iterations.
While previous TALES regulars such as Ashley Thorpe and THE PUMPKIN PIE SHOW’s Clay McLeod Chapman are absent in this go-around, perhaps Season Three’s strongest asset is its roster of writers and directors, mixing genre heavyweights alongside carryovers and fairly newcomers. Maintaining a brilliant variety of sordid subject matter, the influence of producers Glenn McQuaid and Larry Fessenden gives each production a fairly theatrical quality which keeps the tone from jumping between melancholy to gruesome to cerebral; in essence, TALES keeps an ear towards horror that’s emotional but nonetheless entertaining. And furthermore, even with that theatrical flair, it’s refreshing to see the audio medium represent each artist’s voice, with no single tale ever feeling monotonous or familiar to those surrounding them.
Given the two year wait between seasons, it’s only appropriate that TALES FROM BEYOND THE PALE’s third season starts off with a bang, offering a RE-ANIMATOR reunion in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Hound,” written by Dennis Paoli and directed by Stuart Gordon. With music by Richard Band and a cast that includes RE-ANIMATOR’s Barbara Crampton, DAGON’s Ezra Godden and KING OF THE ANT’s Chris McKenna, “The Hound” is Gordon in top form, allowing his stellar performers (especially a particularly against-type Crampton) to bring Paoli & Lovecraft’s depraved tale come to life in frightening fashion. Furthermore, the production value is rather fantastic, punctuating every macabre moment and providing depth to Lovecraft’s universe and its many creepy creations.
From there, comic book mastermind Brahm Revel offers “Junk Science,” which re-unites STAKE LAND stars Nick Damici and Michael Cerveris in an outer space tale that carries strong dialogue, savvy personality and a surprisingly emotional finale. “Junk Science” relies much on the production-heavy science fiction, but the story is so rooted in the relationship of our protagonist and his A.I. that it never falls short of engrossing. Afterwards, McQuaid himself steps up to the plate with “The Ripple at Cedar Lake,” a tale of colliding dimensions that is a stellar listen and features performances by WENDIGO’s John Speredakos, TALES vet Matthew Huffman and THE PUMPKIN PIE SHOW’s Hanna Cheek. “Cedar Lake” makes the most of its fun, clever concept, with every performer enthusiastically embracing the utter insane direction that the story sends them spiraling towards.
However, the fourth entry vies for the possible highlight of the entire season as genre journalist April Snellings’ “Food Chain” offers such a strong sense of humor, character, emotion, nail-biting gruesomeness and karmic justice that it feels as if it could stand toe-to-toe with the finest words of William Gaines. Luckily, Snellings’ superb script is elevated by great performances by Fessenden, THE BATTERY’s Jeremy Gardner, SOUTH OF HELL’s Drew Moerlein, POULTRYGEIST’s Jason Yachanin as well as JUG FACE’s Sean Young and Lauren Ashley Carter (not to mention an inspired vocal creature performance from McQuaid). And the foley work and music on display is rather fantastic, helping to add an extra dimension to an already strongly defined world.
AUTOMATON director James Felix McKenney’s “The Tribunal of Minos” is also an impressively entry as well, an all-too-human character piece starring Angus Scrimm and Mizuo Peck following a pair of Americans trapped inside a mythological labyrinth. It’s a fairly predictable story and yet one that works by the director’s decision to keep the dialogue intimate and, while politically present, far from heavy handed or biased. Meanwhile, UNTIL DAWN scribe Graham Reznick’s “The Chambers Tape” may be the weakest of the set, but if only as the cost of being the most ambitious: by presenting the tale as a therapeutic tape of sinister origins (narrated by Misha Collins), the pacing of the story drags through its first fifteen minutes, while the going finally gets good and unsettling in its latter half.
Next up, Fessenden joins the fray as writer and director of “Natural Selection,” which cleverly plays off Dominic Monaghan’s real-life persona of adventurer and reteams him with his LORD OF THE RINGS co-star Billy Boyd in a story about an animal discovery gone monstrously wrong. With strong supporting performances from Pat Healy and James Ransone as well as terrific sound design, “Natural Selection” explores Fessenden’s inherent talent for crafting human tales in horrific scenarios, and this entry certainly is no different. Following that is TALES vet Jeff Buhler’s “Guttermouth,” a fascinating and engrossing story about an unhappily married man who becomes obsessed with woman whose voice emanates from his drain pipes. Offering a foreboding atmosphere and a Stephen King-esque edge to the supernatural element, “Guttermouth” is another highlight of the season and includes fantastic performances from Joshua Leonard, Heather Goldenhersh, Molly Bryant, Mark Kelly and Rocco Buhler.
One peculiar TALE among the bunch is esteemed horror scribe Eric Red’s “Little Nasties,” although the issues lie not with the story but with the medium. As a radio play, “Nasties” is hilarious, creepy and utterly brilliant in concept and features an exceptional ensemble of all ages (with special note going to a particularly versatile turn from writer Jack Ketchum), but nevertheless, the story seems much more suited for a visual medium, especially the chaotic third act in which one’s imagination can’t quite offer the satisfying pay-off that the premise deserves. And TALES ends strong with an exceptionally twisted story from BITTER FEAST filmmaker Joe Maggio called “Cannibals,” the title of which carries a biting (no pun intended) double meaning as a story who two filmmakers (played by Vincent D’Onofrio and James Le Gros) whose taste in film is much more similar than their taste in food. Essentially a one-act, dialogue-driven play, “Cannibals” game of cat and mouse is a gripping one and ultimately satisfying as each character’s true nature is gradually revealed.
Overall, with a murderer’s row of horror voices and actors involved, not only is TALES FROM BEYOND THE PALE’s third season incredibly worthwhile but a masterful example at how audio production can be used effectively within the genre. With impressive sound design, mixing, foley work and editing, this anthology radio play series plunges the listener into its many nightmarish worlds effectively and with unflinching resolve. So if you’re looking to creep out your fellow carpoolers or if you just need a scary story for a dark and stormy night, look no further than this latest batch of TALES FROM BEYOND THE PALE.