Thursday, October 13, 2016

31 Days of Halloween – The Horror of Sound


By Jerry Chandler

This time of year you get a lot of reviews and discussion about books and movies, but what you don’t see a lot of people talking about is audio horror. I think that’s a real shame since audio horror pulled off well can be every bit as effective as a book or a film- maybe even more so. When done well, the sounds of two characters moving through decrepit old house that they’re maybe not the only occupants of can be more effective than two pages of written word, and the visual “FX budget” of your mind is obviously far less limited than even the biggest budgeted Hollywood film. Some can be fun and safe for family listening, some can be terrifying and maybe not for younger ears.

 
  
One audio horror that’s been high on my list in recent years has been the CBC radio broadcast version of Pontypool. Pontypool was a book-turned-movie that was later adapted into an audio drama. I covered the story in greater detail here. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll really enjoy the audio adaptation. It’s largely made from audio taken from the film with a few alterations to the story here and there and a completely different ending. If you’ve never seen Pontypool, this may be a great introduction to the story.

The story is a twist on the zombie concept. A down on his luck DJ goes on the air in a tiny Canadian town for another dull, boring broadcast day. Then it starts. Reports come in- confused, jumbled, nonsensical –of things happening, of people dying. Slowly the reality of what’s happening outside of the walls of the dingy church basement studio becomes clear. The little town of Pontypool is in the midst of a zombie outbreak, but this is a zombie outbreak unlike any before it. It’s not the bite of the infected that spread the plague, but rather words with the power to infect those who hear and understand them. It’s an intriguing concept, and one that plays out far better than it looks like it would on paper.


One of my favorite groups when it comes to creating new old time radio is The Atlanta Radio Theatre Company. The group- longtime favorite performers at Dragon Con –has been around for quite some time now. Their library- comprised of both adaptations and original offerings -is at this point filled with a number of programs covering every genre imaginable; all of it done extremely well. But it’s their horror offerings that are so perfect for this time of year.

They do excellent adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft’s works. Indeed, they do far better adaptations than most filmmakers. Not a knock on anyone in the film business, but rather a fact of the nature of Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s power was in his words and how he used those words to describe the horrors befalling his characters. With film you sometimes get his dialogue, but you don’t get his words. With audio drama, you get fully dramatized performances that still depend on the use of his words. You also avoid the problem that visual mediums face with Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s horrors were the terrible unknown, the indescribable terrors his characters saw. Your mind could go wild with that. On film, the minute they show the thing menacing the characters you have the known and the describable- a monster limited by the visual. As with Lovecraft’s actual writings, you don’t have that limitation with audio horror.

They have a full catalogue of CDs available at their online store as well as free offerings at their website and on iTunes. One of my favorites, one that I’m most often found recommending, is an ARTC original called The Dancer in the Dark. It’s an excellent story about a series of horrible events and murders culminating in the reappearance of something not seen on this world in a very long time. It also proves that the style and tone of Lovecraft is every bit as home in the sunlit, sweltering landscapes of Georgia as it was in the darker landscapes of Lovecraft’s Innsmouth. They’re all well worth seeking out, but that one in particular is worth snapping up at the earliest opportunity.


It was a novella, it was a movie, but how many of you know that Stephen King’s The Mist was also an audio drama? You know the story, so we won’t get into it here. This is a fun little slice of audio horror that follows the original story pretty well. It’s worth tracking down.


I grew up loving old time radio from back in the day before the television came along. Yeah, some of it can be cheesy and dated, but there are still the gems from that time that remain mostly timeless and still pretty enjoyable. Not quite in that category but fairly close is a serial from the old Adventures by Morse series- The City of the Dead.

San Francisco based P.I. and globetrotting adventurer Capt. Friday finds himself in the middle of a mystery set in a giant cemetery- a city of the dead. There’s something in the City of the Dead that might not be human, and it’s hunting the living. Friday has to figure out what it is and how to stop it before it’s too late for him and for the others caught up in the middle of the unfolding events.

This is both an easy one and a hard one to track down. The CD sets that I know of have fallen out of print, but you can find and stream it for free on YouTube and at various sites that archive old radio. It’s generally family safe old school horror, but it also might be a wee bit too scary for the younger set. It is absolutely enjoyable though.


Staying old time but not quite that old time, there’s the old CBS Radio Mystery Theater radio show that ran through the 1970s and into the early 1980s. The productions feel a little older than they are, likely because of the people behind the series trying to copy the feel of the radio drama they grew up on. But there are some enjoyable horror stories to be found in the series, and it’s easy to find them as there are tons of them posted up on YouTube.

The above show, The Dead Come Alive, is an entertaining little example of what they could do. Some of the stuff you can find on YouTube leans more towards horror, some leans more towards dark fantasy, and some leans more towards suspense. If you have a taste for this kind of horror presented in this style and format, places like YouTube and the official website of the series are absolute treasure troves for you.

Speaking of the dead that come alive, there are two stories of the undead out there you should track down, and both are pretty affordable. The first is the reason that huge fans of the book hated the movie or at least hated the fact that they threw away almost everything but the name of the book when making the movie. This would be the unabridged audiobook for WWZ.
   


This is the story of World War Z that many wanted to see make it to the big or small screen. The format of the book wasn’t a traditional narrative, but rather a series of “interviews” placed in chronological order. It was a look back at the war with the undead that almost wiped mankind from the face of the Earth as chronicled by “the Interviewer” some ten years after the war ended. The interviews start with people who were there before mankind knew what was happening- maybe even with the man who saw ground zero for the event –and follow the timeline into the failed preparations, the first disastrous military encounter with the undead in Yonkers, the fall of civilization as we know it, and then through the fight to take back the world from the grip of the undead.

Make no mistake though; this isn’t a monotone reading of the book done by a guy you’ve never heard of. It’s also not dry, just the facts stories of what went down. This is a full cast audiobook with some pretty damned surprising names in the cast. This is Mark Hamill, Nathan Fillion, Frank Darabont, Simon Pegg, Bruce Boxleitner, Alan Alda, Henry Rollins, Jürgen Prochnow, John Turturro, and a host of others giving it their voice acting all to make the stories live and breathe. This is the story of the worldwide zombie plague and mankind’s desperate fight against it, and you owe it to yourself to give it a listen if you’ve never done so before.

    

A different type of zombie apocalypse than WWZ’s can be found with We’re Alive. The story started out a little uneven on several levels before settling into a nice rhythm. The story has a fairly large scope while managing to stay down on the personal, human level through the interactions of the core group of characters followed throughout the series.

The zombies of We’re Alive don’t quite march to the drum of the traditional zombie. They’re fast rather than slow, and there are elements to their nature that occasionally make them a slightly different kind of threat. Of course, as with any good apocalyptic survival drama, the biggest threats to survivors comes from the other humans looking to survive- and even occasionally from the people in their own small band of survivors.

We’re Alive is a fun mix of zombie action, adventure, drama, and horror. The voice actors are a bit stiff in their roles in the earliest episodes, but once they start finding their characters they really make the material work. The original We’re Alive was first released as a free podcast on iTunes. The original story, A Story of Survival, can still be found there, however a cleaned up version without ads and with better post production is now available for sale through the its website and Amazon. A second story, We’re Alive: Lockdown, was recently released as a free podcast series on iTunes with a cleaned up CD version slated for release down the road.
   
Not an audio drama, but definitely something that qualifies as something that evokes horror through sound is the Midnight Syndicate’s newest release. Yes, you’re reading that cover right. Zombies!!! (Official Board Game Soundtrack) is a soundtrack album for an indie board game. If you think that means this is a chintzy gimmick album, well, you’ve never listened to Midnight Syndicate before. Midnight Syndicate has been putting out some amazing, high quality horror-themed music CDs over the years- horror music soundtracks for horror films that don’t exist as they put it –and this album is absolutely up there with their other work.

Zombies!!! (Official Board Game Soundtrack) is the October/Halloween music album that you need to add to your collection.

There are two more things you really need to be on the lookout for that are also not of the dramatized variety of audio. These are podcasts that focus on horror films and monster movies. Each episode focuses on one specific film to cover in detail. They’re a bit like really cool convention panels for your iPod. It’s some great horror themed listening, and you might even find out about a few films and/or filmmakers you’ll want to add to your October horror movie viewing lists.

 

The first is Decades of Horror. There are actually three different podcasts with three different sets of primary hosts for Decades of Horror as each series focuses on a specific decade. You have one series each for the 1970s, the 1980s, and the 1990s. The hosts and regular contributors are all knowledgeable horror film buffs who know their stuff, providing interesting insights and trivia along with solid reviews and film discussion.  My personal favorite of the three is the one dedicated to the 1970s. The 1970s offered up some insanely wild and weird horror films, and they tackle quite a few of them here.

All of them can be found on iTunes and over at Gruesome Magazine’s website.
   

The second podcast to check out is the Monster Attack podcast. This is the lovechild of radio personality Jim Adams and award winning artist Mark Maddox, and it is the purest form of two film fans chatting enthusiastically about the movies they love that you’re likely to hear outside of a secluded corner at your local convention. Sometimes they hit some cool trivia, sometimes you get into an interesting bit of behind the scenes info, but they always deliver some lively, fun discussion on some classic horror from days gone by as well as the occasionally so bad they’re good films.

You can find the Monster Attack podcast streaming at its website and on iTunes.

And check out the Earth Station One Network as they get set for Halloween with some nice podcasts for the season including a look at the great FX makeup masters

Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek, dabbling in just about every genre but finding science fiction and horror to be his primary comfort zones. He has also had a lifelong devotion to that form of entertainment known as professional wrestling. When not worrying that his coworkers are going to inflict bodily harm onto him over his sense of humor, he enjoys hitting the convention scene or making indie films with his friends. He also finds talking about himself in third person to be very strange.

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