Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Dork 40 Radio Theatre of the Air

So I thought I’d take a little time tonight to share with you one of the dorkier corners of our Halloween Punkin Patch: The Dork 40 Radio Theatre Of the Air, our radio drama mix-tape!


A playlist and download link will follow after the jump, but first… a little history. Radio plays were the favorite entertainment of America for more than 30 years. Telling stories with nothing but voice, music and sound effects, radio drama thrilled millions of listeners coast-to-coast. It was killed by the advent of television, of course, but thousands of radio plays were produced between the 1920s and 50s, and one of the most popular genres in the medium was horror.

There were any number of horror radio series back in the day, with titles like Suspense, The Mysterious Traveler, The Hermit’s Cave, The Inner Sanctum, and Lights Out (famous for its trademark opening: “It‘s… Later… Than… You… Think!”). As with much radio drama, these shows were anthologies, with each week bringing a new and different story. Many of the shows had a regular host as their only common thread from episode to episode, and these hosts ranged from regular radio announcers to morbid characters who added a bit of color to the proceedings.

Sound familiar? It should, if you’ve been visiting the Dork Forty much this month. It was on radio that the whole concept of horror hosts began. The idea was copied first by EC Comics for their infamous horror line, and then on TV by the likes of Vampira, Zacherley, and all those who followed them. But it all got its start on the radio. My favorite of the radio horror hosts I’ve heard is the Old Hermit from The Hermit’s Cave, if only because I love the “crazy old coot” voice.

But the king of radio horror hosts, for most people, is The Inner Sanctum‘s ghoulishly funny “Host.” Originally known as Ronald, later actors in the part were simply known as The Host or, sometimes, Mr. Host. The Host would open and close each episode with macabre jokes and puns, signing off with a sardonic “Pleasant… dreams?” Some would argue that you can draw a pretty straight line from The Host to The Crypt-Keeper, and I can’t argue with that assessment. Though the Crypt-Keeper was more uncouth, he’s clearly cut from the same morbid cloth. The Host was, in later seasons, joined by Mary, a diligently normal young lady who would hilariously transition from the Host’s graveyard humor into ads for sponsor Lipton Tea. It’s all good-natured black comedy stuff, and a nice contrast to the good-natured horror of the episodes themselves.

Those episodes are more than a little creaky, the drama and scares built on devices that have since become cliché. If you wanna hear some horror with dramatic organ cues, for instance, Inner Sanctum is your go-to show. They do manage to pull off some creepy moments through good writing and atmospheric delivery, but to a modern listener, the show’s often as funny as it is horrifying.

To be fair, though, Inner Sanctum’s brand of horror was seen as a little hokey even at the height of its popularity. Other shows did it better, with more inventive writing and direction, and a spooky atmosphere that still works for modern audiences. Suspense (or, as that show’s announcer would have it, SUSPENSE!!) was a good example. Though lacking Inner Sanctum’s sense of humor, Suspense nonetheless delivered better on the scares. The Suspense episodes I’ve heard have been quite well-done, and sometimes seem to take production cues from the man who did the scariest radio plays I’ve ever heard: Orson Welles.

Welles didn’t do much horror, but when he did, it was memorable. His famous Mercury Radio Theatre series opened with a production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that’s among my very favorite adaptations of the novel in any medium. Welles brought to radio the same zeal for innovative storytelling that he brought to film in later years. Welles’ plays are always first rate, with strong acting and tight scripts that seem to not only serve the stories well, but that play to radio’s strengths rather than succumbing to its weaknesses. You’ll hear very little of the bizarre descriptive and expository dialogue that peppers most radio plays in Welles’ work. The exposition is there (it’s practically a necessity), but it’s used sparingly, and always worked in as naturally as possible, mostly through clever use of narrators to move things along. A huge collection of Welles’ radio work can be found here: http://www.mercurytheatre.info/. It’s all free, too, so plunder those public domain resources to your heart’s content.

The radio drama slowly died out in the 1950s, as radio was replaced by television as the entertainment medium of choice in most American homes. Suspense may have held on the longest of the horror shows, not ceasing broadcast until 1962. In the years since, the radio drama’s become a marginalized entertainment at best, something that really only appeals to very old people, nostalgia junkies, and complete dorks like the ones we grow here on the Dork Forty. That being the case, lots of the plays that have been produced in the modern era have been in the fields of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror.

There’s been something of a revival of the form in this age of the podcast, too. The quality is uneven, but there’s good stuff out there if you dig a little. The Atlanta Radio Theatre Company does good work, but my personal favorites are the guys at the HP Lovecraft Historical Society, with their Dark Adventure Radio Theater series. Their productions are lush, and as true-to-the-period as possible, right down to fake cigarette ads. High-quality stuff all the way, and well-worth the money if you like this sort of thing.

And if you want some of the real old-time radio goodness, but don’t wanna have to pay for it, you can go to the Internet Archive’s massive Old-Time Radio collection and download all the free public domain drama you can stand. Also, be sure to check out this amazing (and free!) collection of Vincent Price audio work: http://www.vincentprice.org/audio/audio.html. It’s got a pretty big selection of Price’s radio dramas, as well as tons of his dramatic readings and other audio horror delights. The selection is, frankly, rather overwhelming. But there’s so much Halloweenie Price goodness in there that it’s worth digging around.

But now, on to the mix! You've already seen the cover, but...

Here's the download link: The Dork 40 Radio Theatre Of the Air!

And here’s the playlist, with full annotations! Because we love you, and are insane…

1. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, from the Mercury Theatre On the Air (1938)

As I mentioned above, this is one of my favorite adaptations of Stoker’s novel. Welles reduced the cast significantly, combining Arthur Holmwood and Dr. Seward and dropping Renfield and Quincey Morris completely. Mina doesn't even show up til the second half of the story, either, but that's okay because Welles seems to understand exactly where the horror of the story lies. So he lingers over the early events of the book, spending lots of time on Jonathan Harker's trip to Castle Dracula, delivering a very effective handling of Dracula's sea voyage to England, and then settling in with the seduction and death of Lucy Westenra. By that time the horror of Dracula is well-established, and everything can move at a faster pace, culminating in an exciting chase scene through the Carpathian mountains. It’s fantastic stuff, moody and scary, and with some of the most blood-curdling screams I’ve ever heard.

2. HP Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror, from Suspense! (1945)

My favorite Suspense broadcast. If you’ve never read it, “The Dunwich Horror” is a story about an inbred New England wizard that mates his mentally-defective daughter with a horrible monster-god from beyond, and that union’s strange offspring. The voice filter they use for Wilbur Whateley (the offspring in question) is creepy, but a little… odd. Still, I think this is a great little adaptation. It sets itself up as a radio broadcast from Dr. Armitage (the story’s librarian hero) on the night he goes out to stop Wilbur‘s sinister plans. The fake broadcast is always a fun ploy, though this one didn’t incur the panic Welles’ War of the Worlds did a few years earlier. Fool me once, shame on you, and all that…

3. The Undead, from The Inner Sanctum (1947)

An Inner Sanctum original, this is the story of a young woman who becomes convinced that her husband is a vampire. It’s got some genuinely creepy moments, in a similar vein to Carnival of Souls, but it’s also a good example of the Inner Sanctum’s sense of humor: the husband sounds like a glad-handing Dean Martin type, and his glib dismissal of all the evidence his wife finds against him is intentionally funny.

4. HP Lovecraft’s The Outsider, from Black Mass (1965)

Black Mass was a horror-fantasy show produced in California in the 60s for a college radio station. As such, its plays were effective but rather low-budget affairs, with production reduced to what two men could do with limited studio time. But they were adapting distinctly literary horror stories, often quiet or brooding tales that benefitted from productions that sometimes felt more like dramatic readings than dramas. That approach works particularly well for “The Outsider,” which is about a man who’s alone and outcast from the world around him. If you like this one, it looks like every episode of Black Mass can be downloaded here: http://www.kpfahistory.info/black_mass_index.html

5. Roald Dahl’s William and Mary, from The Price of Fear (1973)

The Price of Fear was hosted by Vincent Price, and produced sporadically by BBC Radio in the 70s and 80s. If that seems awfully late for something like that, you’d be right… if it were an American series. But radio drama’s continued as a minor staple of British radio right on through to the present-day (there’s a link to the BBC sci-fi radio drama website in the Dork Links section over to the right of your screen, in fact).

The set-up for this show is (if you’ll forgive the pun) priceless. Price hosted as himself, and claimed that each episode was either a story he’d been told by someone he’d met in his travels around the world, or were things that had happened to him personally! Which is great excuse for him to narrate or act in every episode. “William and Mary” is the story of a married couple of Price’s acquaintance, and the bizarre circumstances surrounding William’s death. It is, however, based on a story by Roald Dahl, and therefore it's very unlikely to be an anecdote from Price's own life...

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