Dark Shadows: Beyond the Grave Review
Blood-curdling horror from the town of Collinsport is unearthed in this very different Dark Shadows audio from Big Finish Productions.
Over time, the Dark Shadows audios from Big Finish Productions have built up from their rather humble beginnings into huge sprawling arcs. Whereas the early Dramatised Readings were isolated chamber pieces with only one or two actors, the range has since expanded to feature much larger casts of characters, and more complex storylines that feel closer to Dark Shadows' roots as a soap opera than those early storylines did. This culminated in 2013's run of releases: a series of stories set in 1973 that, while focusing on individual characters, built up a wider threat to the inhabitants of Collinsport. This storyline came to its zenith with "Beyond the Grave", a story that is perhaps unlike any other Dark Shadows audio, before or since. Told through found footage, this release really pushes at the bounds of what a Dark Shadows episode looks like, and probably goes beyond them in many ways. As such, it ends up being perhaps the single most scary Big Finish audio in the company's mammoth discography, which is quite the feet considering the number of scary stories the company has released.
Playing out as a recording of 'real life' paranormal investigation show Beyond the Grave, we are introduced to presenters Tom Lacey and Kate Ripperton, who are featuring Collinsport (and specifically the legend of Mad Jack, the local fisherman who haunts Eagle Hill Cemetery) on a special live Halloween broadcast of Beyond the Grave. But things quickly start to go wrong - and soon it becomes clear that the team behind the programme may have uncovered something more than any of them were expecting... Now, I'm sure a lot of people will have rolled their eyes at the term found footage that I used in the paragraph above, and I completely understand why that might be the case. After all, found footage has become a bit of an overused genre with regards to horror. However, "Beyond the Grave" does some amazingly interesting and unique things with the format that make it more than just a bog-standard horror piece. In the beginning, there's no sense that this story is trying to do something clever with its premise, and, as such, sounds more believable than many examples of this kind of story. Everything is very natural, and, because of the format of a live ghost hunting show, any heighted performances or dialogue comes across more as a cheesy attempt to pander to the imaginary viewer, rather than a problem with the script. Writer Aaron Lamont somehow manages to bring such a naturalism to this script, that it feels lees like a drama and more like a real-life show. This script walks that fine line brilliantly, and what makes it even more successful is that it isn't actually noticeable that it is treading that fine line. The story effortlessly takes you from one set piece to the other, and it is hard to notice any seeming join in the events until it is too late. You are like the character of Kate Ripperton: seemingly a passing observer in the events, unable to interfere. As the true unfolding horror reaches fever pitch, it becomes obvious that not everyone is going to get out alive, and the final 15 minutes are some of the most tense audio I have genuinely ever heard in my life. It's spellbindingly good.
Of course, with this being a found-footage format story, you have to work twice as hard to bring your characters to life. After all, you've got to try and build up interesting and well-rounded characters, make them feel utterly believable, and all the while make it look like you're NOT doing that. It's quite the tall order, but I think Aaron Lamont achieves it. Despite it not seeming like you're given much reason to care about either Kate or Tom, it isn't that you aren't, the script is just cleverer than that. They're very ordinary presenters: clearly seeing this as little more than a job and nothing else. That is, until things start going wrong, of course. Both Stephen Kelly and Asta Parry are amazing as Tom and Kate, utterly convincing us these characters are real, breathing people in a natural setting, and forced to deal with unnatural events. Their performances are vital to selling the concept, as it is through their reactions that the tension starts to rise. The two are supported by Kathryn Leigh-Scott as Maggie Evans, who really gets the chance to shine in a story that puts Maggie front and centre. She is put through the wringer with this one, as she inadvertently becomes the focus of everything that is happening, and Leigh-Scott puts in an impassioned performance as the troubled inn-keeper. The rest of the cast basically play bit-parts, with some Dark Shadows legends cropping up in small cameos (and a few characters introduced by Big Finish popping up as well - including one who isn't credited on the cast list), and all of them add to this wider sense of the town as a whole. It's clear these audios back in 2013 were the dry run for later Dark Shadows mini-series' "Bloodlust" and "Bloodline", as the way this audio weaves together multiple plotlines is impressive. However, if you've never heard another Dark Shadows audio before, don't worry - because this still works as a great jumping on point. The direction, too, is incredibly strong - but it is the post-production work from David Darlington that is the real hero here. I love what he does with this script: it is SO IMPRESSIVE how he brings this script to life. There's so many different technical challenges in this script, and the fact that he brings them to life with so much confidence shows his skill at sound design. Seriously, some of the sequences in the second half of the episode (which I don't dare talk about for fear of spoilers) are so well done, especially considering how easy it would be to lose track of what is going on. If one was needed, "Beyond the Grave" should stand tall as a perfect example of how great Big Finish's post-production work is.
"Beyond the Grave", then, might be one of the best things that Big Finish have ever put out with the Dark Shadows name on it. Starting out as a simple play on the found-footage genre of horror, this quickly becomes something else: something much more sinister and vital to the Dark Shadows universe that Big Finish have built up. This not only functions as a great jumping-on point for new listeners, but a brilliant culmination of a series of stories that opened up the Dark Shadows series in ways that had never been imagined before. It's hard to describe "Beyond the Grave" without spoilers, but let me say this - it will absolutely scare the hell out of you. This is something very, very, VERY special, and, genuinely, might qualify as one of the best hours of audio drama Big Finish have ever put out. But, whatever you do, do not listen to this with the lights off...
You can purchase "Beyond the Grave" as a digital download and collectors edition CD from the Big Finish website (see below). Just type "Beyond the Grave" into the search bar at the top of the page.
All pictures copyright to Big Finish Productions/ABC. Thank you very much for reading.
About the Creator
Joseph A. Morrison
25. Fan of Doctor Who, Blake's 7, The Prisoner and more old-fashioned TV. Reviewer, wannabe writer and general twit.
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