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Beyond the Grave cover

As a child, I was a huge fan of In Search Of.

While imitators have come and gone, not a one proved worthy to even tie the metaphorical shoelaces of the originating template – the abortive modern day remake inclusive in that. 

Particularly in more recent days, the nigh-reality TV “ghost hunter”, “bigfoot chaser” and History Channel style speculative “reenactment” format have proved a breeding ground for one ridiculous time waster after another (in certain cases, practically filling the entire schedule of a given cable network or other). 

But way back in the Showa era of the mid to late 70’s, things were quite different.  An entire generation of (perhaps overly) openminded truth seekers, fresh from the highs of Beatlemania, Woodstock and the Summer of Love and veterans of Eastern gurus, niche religions and odd cults of all stripe, were able to look past the growing cynicism that cast the first shadows of a dawning darkness and mistrust of both government and fellow man that erupted in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, to go in search of the mysteries of the world both material and immaterial.

In this more enlightened, if occasionally somewhat gullible period, even the most outwardly sophisticated captains of industry and people of all ages, backgrounds and cultural orientation were seeking answers. 

Such answers often dealt directly with the world we live in – thus the strong and often morally driven investigative reporting blowing the whistle on corporate/industrial and officialdom malfeasance, from factory runoff and the thalidomide scare to the horrors of nuclear power (remember Three Mile Island?) 

But equally prominent were the more speculative, metaphysically inclined mysteries of life, death and worlds beyond. 

Into this milieu came a series of films from companies like Sunn Classics, investigating historical and ahistorical conundrums ranging from the Biblical (In Search of Noah’s Ark, In Search of Historic Jesus) to the historical (In Search of Dracula) to the downright silly (just how many Bigfoot or Sasquatch films can you name in 5 minutes flat?  Timer starts…now).  And that’s not even to mention the notable marker of cultural zeitgeist that was Van Daniken’s bestselling Chariots of the Gods and its sequels and imitators.

Seeing a market for this sort of thing, producer Alan Landsburg created a weekly half hour window into the mysteries of the human condition and experience, tapping everything from terrifying natural events (tidal waves, earthquakes, tornadoes) to unsolved historical mysteries (Oak Island, the lost colony of Roanoake, the apparent astronomical accuracies of ancient tribal customs and archaeological finds), scientific breakthroughs (cloning, cryogenics, global warming – then thought of as “global cooling”) and abject nonsense (Sasquatch, aliens, Nessie, ghosts).

So why do I bring all this up, I’m sure you’re collectively wondering, one eyebrow raised askance. 

Because this month’s Dark Shadows offering plays directly into that whole demographic and area of concern.

Relased fittingly enough on All Hallows Eve itself, Big Finish’s latest take on the beloved and long lived 60’s horror soap is presented in a somewhat unusual fashion.

Beyond the Grave is a putative televised series working off the aforementioned reality TV ghost hunter format pioneered by Landsburg and his progeny, whose Samhain offering is set within the general environs of Collinwood itself.

Cohosted by Kate Ripperton (Asta Parry) and Tom Lacey (Stephen Kelly), this extremely claustrophobic and well written piece carries an increasing build of tension, atmosphere and often surprising revelation throughout its running time, with Ripperton’s far distant sequestering in an English studio no protection from the forces that beset the Lacey and his onsite team.

Travelling from Britain to Collinsport, Maine, the skeleton crew of the imagined weekly series pays a visit to Eagle Hill Cemetery to investigate the mystery of one “Mad Jack”, a fisherman who massacred his family before killing himself within its very gates nigh on a century since and who is said to haunt the locale to this very day.

Despite being warned against continuing their investigation by a hysterical Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott) and Sheriff Jim Hardy (Jonathon Marx, also heard last month’s The Flip Side and here identified as having taken charge after the death of TV sheriff George Patterson), the foolish crew forge ahead, leading to a surprising degree of mayhem and death – suffice to say that very few of the characters involved survive the night.

The bulk of the proceedings are best experienced rather than discussed, so allow me to limit this to the broadest of generalities. 

The bottom line of all this should be obvious to veterans of films like The Legend of Hell House or The Haunting, though there is a decided twist.  In a surprisingly insightful turn of affairs, author Aaron Lamont accurately divines that what are often misattributed to be spectral visitations mask a far more infernal and ancient lineage…

Perhaps the eeriest part of the whole affair is when Kate gets an unsolicited call from none other than Colin Baker (as one “Gerald Conway”, a character who’d appeared once before in the Big Finish Dark Shadows audios, in an installment called The House by the Sea), who intones madly about what a lovely show they’ve put on and the “beautiful” chaos that ensues worldwide, thanks to their broadcast…

Amy Jennings, again essayed by Stephanie Ellyne, has apparently been studying under the “noted parapsychologist” Professor Timothy Stokes and calls in from witch-haunted Salem, Mass. to offer some expert advice on the legend and matters occult.

Carolyn Stoddard (Nancy Barrett), apparently not having learned her lesson in last month’s The Flip Side, delivers some heavily pickled humor as the most obviously soused interviewee, though it’s unclear where this episode falls in relation to that story, as Jonah Rooney (Christopher Ragland) is on hand to deliver some local eyewitness testimony (despite being dead at the hands of his interdimensional double last month), while another character who was very much alive in the earlier tale winds up committing suicide here.  O, what a tangled web we weave!

Maggie Evans fares little better than Carolyn did last time around, saddled with the tarnished reputation of having been committed (twice!) to Windcliff, haunted by recurring dreams and omens relating to the still-to-unfold evening’s events, winding up in a near-miss vehicular homicide and car crash, and playing (as Carolyn did last month) the role of traumatized “final girl” in the broadly defined slasher film milieu Beyond the Grave loosely ascribes to. 

As noted earlier, this is an extremely well written piece in terms of pacing, build and sustaining of tension.  While there is no appreciable subtext or grand message and theme underpinning the whole affair, Beyond the Grave starts off with the listener off balance, wondering whether they’ve gotten the correct disc or download in place – where’s the Dark Shadows theme?  Who are these people? – and measuredly morphs from outright comedy (particularly in terms of the Carolyn cameo and the mock-soap advert) to something a bit more gripping.  As the minutes tick by, events progress directly into outright horror and the stuff of nightmares, likely to haunt sensitive listeners’ nocturnal hours for days thereafter. 

But all this beggars a serious question.  While its televised progenitor certainly featured its share of carnage, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that when it comes to the Big Finish Dark Shadows line, things really seem to be taken to the extreme.  In point of fact, one wonders how the town of Collinsport survives, with the apparent ongoing mass murders of its cast, incidental or no!

Kudos again to author Aaron Lamont, as well as directorial tag team of David Darlington, Darren Gross and Jim Pierson, for crafting and sustaining a piece of true horror very much in the vein of the Richard Matheson TV movies of the 1970s (several of which were in fact produced under the auspices of Dark Shadows’ own Dan Curtis – see how it all links together in the end?)  While this is certainly “all surface gloss” without any real undertones of auteurial commentary on society or the human condition, it’s quite well done for all that, and comes with a memorable sting in the tale. 

Co-director Darlington also provides both music and sound design, which is appropriate as the two, as with this month’s Confessions of Dorian Gray, comingle to a large extent.  Was there really a music score, or was it purely driven and intensified by a more subtle collection of sound effects?  The two punctuate and complement each other to a far stronger degree than one might expect.

In the end, this is a bit of Halloween spookiness – probably far too intense for the kiddies, but a very memorable lark for the gothically inclined.  Quite recommended.

http://bigfinish.com/releases/v/beyond-the-grave-884