All that was old is new again.
That’s perhaps the greatest innocuous lesson that the modern age has taught us. For all the advancements we’ve made in iPads, iPhones, u-verses and whatever other piece of technology you can stick a vowel in front of, pop culture is currently in the throes of a retro-binge that has more people scrambling for a piece of 8-bit technology (Nintendo’s lamentably limited NES Classic console) than the latest whatever-terabyte console Sony and Microsoft are churning out this week. From retro games to retro films, throwback is the name of the game; and, surprisingly, while most of the love is built around the 70s-90s, there’s at least one even older medium currently enjoying an unexpected comeback: the radio drama. Bolstered by the ever-growing popularity of podcasts, a form of entertainment that went out of style when many of our grandparents were still children is now a brave new frontier in online entertainment, and it’s no surprise that horror-themed audio dramas are leading the pack. After all, while old-style detective and action dramas are largely irrelevant in the age of the action blockbuster, horror stories are at their best when they tease the imagination just enough to encourage the human mind to begin concocting its’ own nightmarish, incomparable phantasms. From the Twin Peaks-y weirdness of Welcome to Nightvale to the ostensibly true-life horror of No Sleep, millions of listeners all over the world have eschewed the notion that more is always more, becoming enthralled by nothing more than disembodied voices, sound effects, and some occasionally spooky music. While the current boom has left listeners with plenty to choose from, the established dramas have some stiff, new competition from The Narrow Caves, a unique new horror story with an exceptional pedigree.
Set against the neon-and-New Wave backdrop of 1983, The Narrow Caves tells the story of the relationship between two antagonistic college students, Walter and Ruby, who find themselves inexplicably drawn together despite their initial, mutual hostility. What begins as animosity evolves into erotic fascination, and soon the pair are inseparable. As it turns out, though, there’s more to their relationship than just immaturity and hormones, as Walter learns when he accompanies Ruby home on vacation and makes a horrifying discovery of cosmic implications in the woods surrounding her family’s home…
Perhaps more than any of the online horror dramas available today, The Narrow Caves boasts the most solid cast and crew. The script comes from the mind of novelist/screenwriter S. Craig Zahler, whose gnarly horror-western Bone Tomahawk was the darling of Fantastic Fest ‘15, while the cast features the voice talent of both film veterans (Vincent D’Onofrio, Will Patton) and up-and-comers (Lilli Simmons, Wyat Russell). Though he’s written across a number of different genres, Zahler shows again that he’s most effective when tackling horror. His script—bolstered by the economical use of footsteps, ambient sound, and a production designer who understands that silence is a noise— successfully combines the angst and young love of a 70s-80s teen drama with the creeping wrongness of a New England horror yarn. Think Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus meets Silent Hill.
Meanwhile, despite the presence of D’Onofrio (who could almost literally read the phone book and intone it with a sense of dread and unease) and Taylor (who strikes just the right tone between flirty assertiveness and the sort of overconfidence that hides vulnerability) it’s Patton’s narrator who steals the show. Though he virtually never deviates from a calm, detached monotone, there are just enough subtle inflections and moments where his voice wavers to give the story the impact it needs—think Don Hertzfeldt with a little more menace. Whether he’s heightening the tension with cold disinterestedness or giving occasional levity with an almost imperceptible sass, this is Patton’s show from beginning to end, and he commendably steps into the shoes of the old timey radio announcer.
The Narrow Caves is the first foray into audio drama from Cinestate, a production company based out of Dallas that aims to do for Texas what Hollywood has done for Los Angeles and New York. In addition to producing Bone Tomahawk and the upcoming Puppet Master reboot, the company also boasts a publishing wing, and hopes that Caves will be the first of many “Audiostates”—professionally written and acted audio dramas that offer a full-immersion listening experience. If this is just the start, then Caves sets a very high bar indeed—I’m curious to see where things go from here.