Review: 'Tales from Beyond the Pale'


When I was a kid, I'd spend a lot of time at my grandparents' house, and much of that time was with my step grandfather, who was completely blind. But thankfully, being blind did not stop him from his true love - listening to recordings of old time radio dramas - specifically horror and mystery shows from when he was a child in the 1940's. Even though radio shows were a thing long before my own time, I quickly became caught up in my grandpa's nostalgia, and in time it became my own. Strange thing, to have nostalgia for a time that wasn't even mine. 

But even though I'm grown now and separated from that experience by both time and distance, I still carry in me a love for radio dramas. They go hand in hand with my love of EC horror comics, Weird Tales, late night horror features, Rod Serling, Alfred Hitchcock, and Boris Karloff and all that other stuff that makes up the horror pop culture of a time before our own.

And I'm not alone in this love of horrors past, apparently, because just this October Larry Fessenden and Glass Eye Pix have begun releasing half hour radio dramas, all in the horror genre. They call it "radio plays for the digital age", and using a metaphor from another nostalgia-packed tradition, I have to say, they've knocked it right the hell out of the park.

And like Serling, Hitchcock and Karloff, Fessenden is following a formula that works - the horror anthology. Rather than go serial, each of the 10 episodes in season one is its own stand alone journey into the macabre, and each one featuring a new writer and new actors from the horror community. Here's a quick spoiler-free look at the first four episodes.

The first episode out of the gate is MAN ON THE LEDGE by Joe Maggio and starring Vincent D'onofrio. Without getting into spoiler territory, "Man on the Ledge" follows a metaphysical discussion between a police officer and a potential suicide jumper high atop a building in New York City. The discussion treads through subjects such as friendship, the nature and reasoning behind human kindness, the glory of innocence, the failings of man as a race, and ultimately the gray area between good and evil. Sound heady? That's because it is, and what a pleasant relief it is from the droll, pedestrian shit that seems to fill movie theaters these days impersonating itself as horror.

See that? See what I just did? I did it and I didn't even realize it at first... I just compared this radio show to cinema. Why? Because I felt like I was watching it, or like I was there when it was happening. And that, in addition to tackling heady, thoughtful, intellectual horrifying concepts, is what Fessenden and his crew really get right.

In episode two, IS THIS SEAT TAKEN, by Sarah Langan, we follow the daily tape recordings of a woman who is writing a book based on case studies. The subject of the book is unclear, but what is clear at first, but what clear is that she's falling in love with case study C (subtly and expertly played by Joe Swanberg), and even though she's seducing him for the purpose of her book, she's also seducing him to "break him down" and wreck him.

The second episode isn't quite as strong as the first, mostly because several of the performances were not as grounded as D'onofrio and Fessenden's in the first episode. There was a largeness to the performance of Vonia Lania that felt more appropriate to a sitcom or a big comedy than to a subtle tale of seduction, madness and murder. Swanberg, on the other hand, seems completely at home in the genre and the world of audio drama as his performance is at the same time archetypal and original and most importantly, subdued. All that said, episode 2 is still worth a listen, it's just nowhere near as compelling as episode 1.

The third episode, BRITISH AND PROUD, by Simon Rumley, takes us across the globe to London and then Sudan in a story of gruesome sexuality, obsession, dream walking and bizarre mutilation. We follow the story of Sebastian Brown,(Gareth Bennett-Ryan) a young Englishman who marries a Sudanese woman named Zalika (Jenny Wambaa) in England and then heads home with her to her village in Africa, where there are no phones, no computers and no means whatsoever to contact home. As a matter of fact, his new bride even refuses to tell them the name of her village...

All of this mystery is compounded when a mysterious scarred African woman appears to Sebastian in his dreams telling him to flee from his new bride before it's too late... To tell any more would be to go into spoiler land, but suffice to say that the horrors that await the newlyweds back in Africa are monumental and exquisite. And in this particular episode, the ending (which would be unfilmable without an NC-17 or an X rating) proves to be much more horrifying and gruesome BECAUSE it's happening in the mind's eye.

Episode 4, THIS ORACLE MOON, by Jeff Buhler (an as-yet-unreleased episode, which I had the opportunity to preview), is set in the future, but is perhaps the most retro feeling of all the first four episodes of the series. The story pits interplanetary travelers against what appears to be cannibalistic cavemen on a heretofore uninhabited moon. Ron Perlman leads the way against the cave-dwelling of the creatures, only to make a horrifying discovery in this sci-fi-horror mystery. The sound fx in this one are distractingly dated and overly cartoony, but Perlman's strong presence and the equally strong script carry the day to a very rewarding climax.

So that's the first 4 episodes of the 10 episode season, spoiler free, in a nutshell. Each episode is about 30 minutes long, costs $1.99 (well worth the money if you ask me) and features a whole new complete story, so you can pick and choose the ones that sound interesting to you. Check ‘em out here.

So, aside from my petty criticisms, this show promises to be a serious hit, not only with people who miss old fashioned radio, but with horror fans who miss the best of what horror holds for us -- good storytelling. Tales from Beyond the Pale has strong writing, strong acting talent and some people running the show who are truly reverential of the genre, respectful of the form, and have a great grasp on horror, dread and fear.

In an age when there are 35 hours of video being uploaded to Youtube every MINUTE, it's refreshing to turn off the lights, click play on my laptop and just LISTEN to a story. Why? Because the visual effects are great, the characters are all sitting right there with me, and I'm fully transported to exactly where they want me to be transported to... my own imagination. And if you're like me, you'll love going there with Tales from Beyond the Pale.

Bottom line on my review? I only got the first four episodes to review for free and now I'm eagerly waiting to slap down my money for the 6 remaining episodes.

Nuff said.