Thursday, September 25, 2014

Voices in the Dark: The Horrors of Dark Fantasy (1941-1942) Part Three

by Jose Cruz

10. The Headless Dead
Original Broadcast: January 23, 1942

Cast: Ben Morris (Frederick Hallman), Eleanor Naylor Caughron (Laura), Fred Wayne (Swifte), Garland Moss (Leader of the Headless Dead), and Murillo Schofield (Chauffeur). 

The place: the Tower of London. The time: late night. Frederick Hallman is walking through the echoing chambers of the infamous castle when he comes by Swifte, a night watchman. The old geezer regales Frederick with gory tales of the Tower’s various, undead residents: the gambling spook; the hideous “pig-faced” specter; the hooded horror known as Brother Randall. If Frederick was more of a connoisseur of such diabolical lore, he would know that his next move is what seals his fate: He denies the existence of ghosts.

Deciding to gambol about, Swifte takes Frederick into St. Peter’s Chapel, where he proceeds to offer ominous one-liners about the ancient structure. “Isn’t as deserted as you might think, sir,” he tells Frederick and, in response to the latter’s persistent refusal of belief: “If you look for emptiness, you see emptiness.” Swifte seems to be getting to Frederick’s nerves when he mentions that the flagstones paving the floor are in fact grave markers for the dozens of bodies buried beneath. Sir Thomas More, Lady Jane Grey, Sir Thomas Raleigh, and two of England’s queens are all now interred in the earth, further testament that the Tower is built on death.

Beckoning to the pipe organ, Swifte offers Frederick the chance to play the instrument, giving the program an ample opportunity to flex the professional pluckings of WKY musician Ken Wright. An echoing voice joins Frederick in song, lilting in Latin along with the somber tone of the pipes. Swifte explains that the ghost only sings for a new player’s first time at the organ. Shaken but not stirred by this unearthly accompaniment, Frederick asks to play for a little longer. Swifte leaves him to it but the young man then succumbs to a sudden slumber.

Awakening, Frederick finds that Swifte is gone and the chapel doors are locked. That’s not the worst of it though. Frederick observes in horror that the flagstones at the foot of the altar are being pushed up by “long, bony arms” rising from the ground and he sees “two ghostly figures rising out of the tombs in the floor.” 

The many wispy spirits then form themselves into a procession, carrying their decapitated heads with them as they march. Frederick sees that they are led by a single armored wraith. The spook drifts over to Freddie’s side and welcomes him to the fold. The Leader reveals that it was really he who was commanding the organ earlier. “Don’t you think I play well?” he asks with a touch of wickedness. “I always play the music for our nightly… meetings.” 

The Leader makes it clear to Frederick that he will die if he does not stay to watch their ritual. Frederick manages to weasel his way out of it—but only temporarily. The Leader forces Frederick to take an oath that he shall return to the chapel the following evening at midnight and take part in their ceremony, swearing his word “by the souls of the sacred dead.”

The following day, Fred’s wife Laura can see that her husband is clearly upset and asks him to vent his troubles. Frederick does exactly that by telling her the whole spooky episode, but Laura believes it was just a dream he suffered after falling asleep in the chapel. Still, Frederick remains unsure if he will return to the Tower for his appointment. 

Phoning Laura later, Frederick tells her he’ll be dining at the club that night and has decided against joining the late-night marching party. But when Frederick’s chauffeur Henry drives him home that night as the witching hour tolls, he finds out that his summonings will not be so easily avoided. Frederick is assailed by the voices of Swifte, the Leader, and the singing ghost, chanting an unholy chorus that causes Henry to crash the car against a passing truck in the commotion. Recovering from the wreck, Henry calls out to his employer and finds his… remains. “Mr. Hallman…! His head!” 

The Leader greets the newly acquired Frederick, pleased that he could keep his appointment.

Like “The Demon Tree” before it, “The Headless Dead” gets its spunk from setting the action in a domain of myth and legend and introducing a shuddery supernatural element to relentlessly plague the heroes. It never quite matches the inspired flourishes of the former episode, but “The Headless Dead” has enough of its own charms and arresting set pieces to heartily recommend it. 

The entire scene between the undead leader and Frederick is a highly amusing and grim moment. Moss’s performance might be a bit too restrained for some, but his low-key delivery of the lines actually adds to their snappy effect. As the dismembered party makes its eerie procession to the altar, Moss’s Leader makes wonderfully subtle, morbid jokes, such as when he tells Frederick that he is the front-runner for the line solely because his head has remained in place! He also goes on to explain that the nightly resurrection gives the spirits a nice time to stretch from being entombed all day. Funniest of all is definitely Frederick’s response to the Leader’s insistence that he stay for the ritual. “Can’t we make it some other night?” he pleads, as if the ancient ghosts are asking him out for a date at the movies.

The climax is another punchy stinger. The technical effects are of special note here, as they replicate a cinematic flow of voiceovers, the warnings of Swifte and the Leader (“The headless dead!” “Join the procession!”) intermingling with the chapel ghost’s infectious singing to make a highly suspenseful sequence that ends on an appropriately nasty note that would certainly be at home in a four-color funny book. Can’t you just see the Leader smiling as he holds the chapel door open for Frederick’s mutilated soul, a craggy-faced horror host snickering away in the corner of the page? Bishop is that host. 

11. Death is a Savage Deity
Original Broadcast: January 30, 1942

**No Cast Listed**

Delores returns home from the conservatory one night to find her Aunt Wanna playing a melancholy melody on the family organ. The two ladies begin discussing the recent, tragic suicide of one the servants, Andrews. The man had apparently executed himself after receiving news that he was to be blind for the rest of his life. Wanna clucks her old tongue and says how she always warned Andrews time and again to properly care for his vision. 

Alma the maid enters to inform Delores that her fiancĂ©e Jim Harvey has just arrived. The poor servant has been suffering from terrible headaches as of late herself, something that Auntie Wanna cautions her to be wary of. Jim invites Delores out for a walk on the grounds and faster than you can say “Fussy old biddy” Wanna is wagging her finger and telling Jim to be careful of the lily pond in back. It might not be exceedingly deep, but the lack of a railing and the surrounding darkness could surely lead to an accident.

Thinking back to her aunt’s admonishments, Delores finds it peculiar that she only singled Jim out and didn’t warn both of them. Delores admits she’s been feeling trapped in her own home and believes that her aunt is trying to keep her and Jim apart. She also has her suspicions about Andrews’ death, as the man had perfect eyesight his entire life despite the autopsy discovering that he had been blind at the time of his passing. Jim attempts to calm his beloved’s outlandish fears… just before he has a close call when he almost slips into the lily pond.

The next day the couple decides to take a romantic swim in a nearby lake, Wanna offering her usual ominous guidance. Delores is convinced that her dear old aunt despises them both, but can’t seem to account for the old woman’s sudden change in disposition. After Delores has waited for Jim to get done changing, she goes looking for him only to run away screaming from the sight of his corpse floating amongst the lilies in the pond. 

Wanna claims that Jim had stumbled and crashed his head against a rock, knocking him out cold and leading to his drowning. Wanna receives a telephone call from her lawyer and tells Delores that she will be away on business for a while. Consorting with Alma, Delores insists that the maid open the door to the chamber that has been sealed shut in the eighteen years since her father died inside of it. The shivering servant obliges and inside they discover a set of four, foot-tall dolls that appear to have been made in the semblance of Andrews, Alma, Jim, and Delores. All of the figurines are run through with pins: Andrews in the eyes, Alma in the head, Jim sunken in a mini-pond, and Delores in the heart, a spot that has been giving her pain lately.

“It’s witchcraft! Black magic!” Alma shudders, admitting that she has been aware of Aunt Wanna’s terrible power for some time but has been too scared to do anything about it. She informs Delores that Wanna learned the ways of voodoo while living in Haiti and how she stole bits of her victim’s hair and clothes to construct her bewitched dolls. Just after these facts are imparted, Alma drops dead straight away and Delores collapses in a faint.

Awakened by the family doctor, Delores is told that Alma perished of a brain hemorrhage in her sleep. Delores realizes that her devious relative must have moved the poor girl’s corpse to stage a “natural” demise and confesses everything she’s found out to the doctor. The physician takes all of this news in stride, as he himself had his suspicions about Wanna’s occult activities!

The doc gives Delores the whole kebab on Wanna, about how she was the wife of a wealthy plantation owner in Haiti whom she killed by feeding poison. But the wily fox had made a last amendment to his will that bequeathed all of his wealth and property to the daughter of his best friend. And that beneficiary is Delores herself! *Thunder clap*

So using “her ancient, jungle powers,” Wanna plotted to knock the damsel off along with anyone else who got in the way of her ill-gained riches. Which includes basically everybody. But Wanna’s husband also had an extra trick up his sleeve: just before the poison licked him off, he succeeded in having a voodoo doll-likeness of his wife made up by a witch doctor who proceeded to stab the effigy with a pin laced with a paralyzing serum.

But how can Wanna have gone on perfectly healthy in spite of the curse, Delores wonders. The doctor knows all: “No spell is effective unless the victim is made aware of its existence.” 

Hmm. Alright.

Naturally, when the doctor was called to the house by Wanna to aid the stricken ladies—thus having his theories confirmed—he felt the need to let the story slip about Wanna’s husband. So where is dear auntie now, Delores asks. “Are you ready to get up?” the doctor asks nonchalantly. They walk into the next room and Delores sees the fate of her evil relative: maybe not light as a feather, but definitely stiff as a board.

One would like to claim that “Death is a Savage Deity” is one of those deliriously bad stories that manages to actually become entertaining in its inanity, but the episode leaves one more in a sense of stupefaction than any kind of giddy masochism. The narrative is perhaps the messiest that Bishop has yet to claim his name to, filled with so many “Huh?” and “Whuh?” moments that it’s hard to keep track of much else. 

The biggest offender is undoubtedly the doctor’s reveal about the voodoo curse. Suffice it to say, if the victim must know about the spell, then how does Jim end up kicking the lily pad being none the wiser of Wanna’s magic tricks? And what about these heart troubles Delores has been having prior to entering the sealed chamber? Some things can be forgiven, but this aspect of the plot is just plain sloppy. 

The technical crew does wring some nice moments from the frazzled script, namely the sequence where Alma and the doctor talk of Aunt Wanna’s past. Organist Ken Wright lightly pounds the keys to replicate the sound of tribal drums and tinkles the high notes to connote the stabbing of the doll by the medicine man during the doctor’s narration.  

The performances themselves leave a little to be desired, barring that of the unlisted actress playing Aunt Wanna. Her inflections are very similar to  that of actress Sheila Keith, most famous for the villainous turns she did for British horror director Pete Walker in films like Frightmare and House of Whipcord from 1974. Indeed, this a role that Keith would assuredly have relished and it’s a shame that the wicked aunt doesn’t have a more prominent role in the drama.

Though the recording cuts off before listing the cast credits, frequent player Fred Wayne is undoubtedly the voice of the family doctor (who inspires some tittering when he speaks of the “baybeh girl”). Ben Morris and Eleanor Naylor Caughron were more than likely the actors who filled in the roles of Jim and Delores respectively, though the actresses who played Alma and Aunt Wanna are sadly, as far as can be ascertained, lost to the ages.

Note: The name of Delores’s aunt was referenced from Karl Schadow’s article at the Metropolitan Washington Old Time Radio Club. It is very hard to discern some of the lines from the recording; I was under the impression the aunt’s name was Lorna myself! For the sake of consistency, we have taken Karl’s word on the matter.

12. The Sea Phantom
Original Broadcast: February 6, 1942

Cast: Ben Morris (Mr. Wilson), Fred Wayne (Captain Strong), Muir Hite (Isaac), and Garland Moss (Captain Jonathan Strange). 

The scrape of chalk is the only sound in the lonely quarters of Captain Strong as a mysterious figure writes his message upon the captain’s slate. But mate Isaac finds out that the occupant of the room is not exactly human: it’s a moving, grinning skeleton who cackles wickedly to himself as Isaac heads for the hills in terror!

Isaac promptly reports the sighting to Strong and associate Mr. Wilson: “White, bleached bones, sir. With big empty eye sockets and a gaping mouth.” Yep, that’s a skeleton alright! Strong can’t account for it though; all hands are either on deck or in the engine room. The captain warns Isaac that he’ll have him flogged and put in irons for making up stories, so the three men go back to Strong’s apartment to investigate. The room is completely empty, with not a fibula in sight. Isaac swears that he locked the door behind him before he came running to the two of them. 

They do spot writing on the slate just as the mate said, and Strong remarks that it is of a style and type that is easily two hundred years old. It reads: “It is not correct the information you have about the Sea Phantom.” The message goes on to specify some nautical directions and is signed by Jonathan Strange, the very same captain of that storied Spanish galleon who went down into Davy Jones’ locker with its booty of treasure centuries ago. It is this very vessel that Strong’s men are searching for, and these pinpoints supplied by the bony ghost are just what they need to find it.

At midnight, Isaac (who, unless my ears deceive me, states his full name to be Isaac Newton!) knocks frantically on Mr. Wilson’s door, rousing the man from his slumber. The spooked mate tells Wilson that he has spotted a ship without lights and a full set of sails in the dead of night. Incredulous, Wilson accompanies Isaac out on deck and confirms the astonishing sight. “If you’ve never seen a ghost ship, take a look at that boat out there,” he tells Isaac, for Wilson knows that what they look upon is none other than the Sea Phantom

But even Wilson is surprised when their attempt to toss an iron rigging pin onto the nearby ship is met with a solid impact, proof that the vessel is not just a spectral mirage. Adventure getting the best of them, Wilson and Isaac board a rowboat and ride over to the ship to explore its secrets. Wilson can’t help but note the Phantom’s eerie silence and ruined condition. He does spot a light burning in a room and enters while Isaac keeps a look out.

Upon entering, Wilson spots a skeleton in the corner of the cabin. The disembodied voice of Jonathan Strange rings out in the air, instructing Wilson to open an old chest in which the man finds glowing coins of gold and sparkling crowns. Strange explains that the riches were originally meant for the Spanish king, but the evil Jose Manel, a mutinous member of the crew, plotted to rob the treasure for himself. Strange put a stop to the uprising by lighting all the lifeboats on fire along with the rest of the Phantom, consigning all of them to flaming death on the high seas. 

Strange orders Wilson to grab a small parcel from the room before Isaac raises the alarm that the ship is now aflame and going under fast. The two men manage to escape the reenactment of the Phantom’s fate. Once back on board their own ship Isaac verily vouches Wilson’s startling account. No one on Strong’s ship heard the fire, but the charred pieces of driftwood floating on the waves are unmistakable. Wilson is able to clear Strange’s name with his story and the parcel he retrieved from the Phantom. It is the captain’s log, and its last entry details Strange’s brave act and the sealing of his fate… as well as that of anyone who dare seek the treasure in the future!

While Dark Fantasy has certainly had its ups and downs over the course of the last dozen episodes, “The Sea Phantom” may be the first to feel insignificant. The story coasts along to its finale without generating any kind of fanfare or interest in the proceedings. For all the ideas that didn’t work in the previous maritime terror, “The Thing from the Sea,” that story at least made an attempt to be different and fresh, and no matter how confounding the results were it was never boring, a fate that “The Sea Phantom” sadly cannot avoid.

The cast is generally game as usual, Muir Hite especially notable for his blustery performance as Isaac. The chilly prologue with his character happening upon the skeleton scribe is fragrant with atmosphere and potential, but each following scene is a steady and further decline into the mundane. I wish there was more for me to offer on this one, but the only advice I can give is to just keep on sailing. 

13. “W” is for Werewolf
Original Broadcast: February 13, 1942

Cast: Ben Morris (Jim Howard), Garland Moss (Bill Andrews), Eleanor Naylor Caughron (Angela Howard), Fred Wayne (Rayfield), and Don Stolz (Johnny). 

Along the crowded port of Cape Howe, Jim Howard spots his old friend Bill Andrews and calls out to him. Bill has invited Jim and his family to the island cabin that Bill lives in with his son Johnny. Jim notes how tired Bill looks, and it is in fact a rather odd time for Bill to have granted this act of hospitality: Andrews’ other son, Bill Jr., has just recently passed away from a fever and Johnny is especially feeling the loss as evidenced by his random mood swings.

Still, Bill is happy to have the group over, confirming first that Jim had his infant child inoculated for any local illnesses and saying that he has taken precautions for any “other dangers” they may face. Jim is excited for the chance to spend time with the old doc, and they depart via carriage to the boat that is to ferry them off to the island.

During the ride, Bill reveals that he has been having his share of other troubles. His medical practice hasn’t been too hot as of late and he laments that he doesn’t have anything more luxurious than his humble cabin to offer. Jim’s a little puzzled by the books his friend asked him to bring along for him too. One of them is a scientific study of lycanthropy and another is Guy Endore’s supernatural classic The Werewolf of Paris, but Bill says they’re merely for experimental research.

Meeting Bill’s son Johnny, Jim goes to shake the young lad’s hand but the teenager acts antsy and skulks about. Jim is astounded by something peculiar he noticed, which only increases the tension as father and son begin to bicker. In confidence, Jim tells Bill that he was shocked by the “thick growth of hair” he saw on the palm of Johnny’s hand. If you suspect this is because the boy’s going through some natural life changes, you’d only be partly right.

Once he’s shown his room, Jim comes into contact with Rayfield, the Andrews’ servant, cook, and tutor to Johnny. The foreign butler mutters of the “things in the night” that the local superstitious villagers have warned Bill of, and gives Jim a charm made of green twigs, a lake shore pebble, and charred wood that he says will ward off evil spirits. 

Just then a chilling howl rents the air, but Rayfield assures that it just some island animal, claiming that no wolves have been known to stalk the area. Jim, who was so scared by the cry that it sounds like he shouts “Great horned toads!” (!), thinks the howling is coming from the east wing of the cabin. Tracing the sounds to a bedroom, Jim hears scraping and snarling on the other side of the door and calls out to Bill. The physician says that he heard no such sounds and thinks his friend is joking with him.

As it turns out, the room belongs to Johnny and used to be shared by the two brothers before Bill Jr.’s death. Looking inside, Bill points out the deep scratches embedded on the inside of the door and the steel chain and collar tied to the post of one of the beds. Bill explains that the boys used to own a collie that they kept in their room, the traces of fur and scratches being from the pet. Assured but still wary, Jim resolves to sleep.

Jim’s wife Angela and their baby soon join the group and a bit of merriment is brought back to the vacation. Bill has to go to the mainland on an appointment, but before departing he asks Jim to give him his solid silver watch charm. Angela asks about Bill’s weird behavior and the arrival of a wired telegram in response to an inquiry Jim sent in seems to confirm his worst fears. Some historical digging has unearthed the fact that Bill’s grandfather was shot to death by a mob in France. When his casket was later unearthed, they found the skeleton of a wolf within it! 

A piercing scream from Johnny’s room is suddenly heard and in the ensuing confusion Jim shoots at a strange creature that darts off into the darkness. Running to the bedroom, the couple finds Rayfield with his throat torn out and the bedpost collar snapped off the leash. Following Jim’s lead, Angela accompanies him out to Bill Jr.’s grave site on the estate and they dig the coffin up. Snapping the lid open, Angela gasps at the lupine bones covered with “woolly fur.” The couple now fully realizes just what they’re up against and that Bill has been struggling to find a cure for his familial ailment the whole time. When they hear the haunting howling from the cabin, they realize that their newborn is in their room… and defenseless.

Rushing back, Jim and Angela find their bedroom door locked and desperately try to break it down as the monstrous snarls emanate from within. Just as they force it open, a series of shots blast out and they find Bill, having just gunned down Johnny with silver bullets. He turns to them and somberly informs them that the curse is finally over. 

Dark Fantasy finally and fully returns on the promise it delivered with its fourth episode, “The Demon Tree,” in delivering this wild, pulpy tale of teenage werewolves. Like that earlier story, everybody seems to be on board with the project, from Scott Bishop’s suspenseful script and the convincing performances of the actors to the sharp direction and foley effects. 

Even the bumper promo that followed “The Sea Phantom” seems to promise a romping good time: instead of just simply proclaiming the name of the next installment, the announcer starts off with “Listen for…” which is followed by a hearty “Aroooooo! W is for Werewolf!” The speaker at the beginning of the actual episode gives a similar, fun delivery, practically shaking in his boots as he whispers the title of the dark drama into our eager ears. 

Much was made of this episode being the “13th original tale” written by Bishop for the series, no doubt because it had the good fortune of airing on Friday, February 13th, 1942. A small publicity stunt was staged for the local papers where the cast and crew posed for photos that showed them indulging in all matter of superstitious rule-breaking. 

This episode and “The Demon Tree” demonstrate that the program was usually at its best when concentrating on otherworldly monsters that served as palpable threats to the characters. Many of the other stories had “weird” and “bizarre” happenings that sought to serve as the main draw, but the ghostly benefactors of “Debt from the Past” and the friendly reincarnation of “Resolution 1841” all lacked that one vital factor that kept the audience tuned into the action: suspense. Granted, not all the stories that dealt with the powers of darkness (i.e. “Death is a Savage Deity”) were completely successful, but the dose of intrigue that only an active, antagonistic force can bestow was key in making an episode that listeners would remember long after the commercials rolled in.

“‘W’ is for Werewolf” has its odd little moments that don’t fit very well in the grand scheme of the story, but they’re of hardly very much concern. I’ll just leave it off by saying that it’s a very solid entry from the series, but if you expect me to say something cheesy like “It was a howling good time,” then you will be sorely disappointed. 

Stay tuned for more terror in two weeks. 
Same time, same channel!

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