This new entry in the Dark Shadows series is produced for audio by Big Finish, makers of such fine products as the truly wondrous Jago and Litefoot thrillers (for my reviews of these, click here). I have to admit to knowing very little about the eponymous original TV soap it is based on (and haven’t seen the recent Tim Burton movie version starring Johnny Depp either), but this drama works just fine without any previous knowledge. The time is 1950, the place is Hollywood, California and what follows is a witty and twisted homage to Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder’s classic Oscar-winning Film Noir.
“Ten years ago I awoke from a troubled sleep. Hearing a noise in my room, I first thought it was my zebra eating the stuffing at my chaise lounge …”
Like the movie, this is a story narrated in the first person in classic hardboiled fashion (“Yeah, I was a writer of sorts – not the kind I wanted to be …”) by a writer about his encounter with a silent movie actress that didn’t turn out as well as he’d hoped. Helvetica Stanhope was once a famous actress during the silent era but is now plagued by nightmares. Out of the blue she phones Hollywood reporter Gideon Wilder (played by Andrew Collins), who for years has been trying without success to get an interview with her. He is transported to her mansion in the actress’ white, open-top, chauffeur-driven Dusenberg (which comes with a complimentary raccoon) to be warmly greeted by her assistant Amanda Harris, a character new to me but (as reprised by Donna McKechnie) one that had previously appeared on the TV show as Quentin Collins’ lost love – here’s what Big Finish say about the character:
Amanda, who arrived in Collinsport in 1897, was in reality a creation of the artist Charles Delaware Tate (who we heard in last year’s The Blind Painter). A living portrait, she fell in love with fellow immortal Quentin Collins. They made plans to marry and leave for New York together but, tragically, they were separated. Destined to wander the Earth, searching for each other, they wouldn’t be reunited until 1969. This is the story of what happened to her during those missing years …
A ‘living portrait’, really? Well, OK, if you say so – let’s see where this takes us … Gideon cools his heels in her mausoleum of a home, dusty, dark and realises that it is utterly devoid of colour. She is so locked in her own cinematic past that all the furniture is black and white – in fact she even has a menagerie made up of a skunk, a swan, the aforementioned raccoon and even a small zebra, all of whom are of course also monochromatic … When Helvetica (great name, don’t you think?) finally maker her entrance, sporting dark glasses, a turban and a face pack, this is an image clearly modeled on the look of Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard, though this story proves to be much more sinister.
She claims to be stalked by a curse, one that plagues her with nightmares. In her dreams friends of hers coming to see her, presages of their death which are later revealed to be true. First an old co-star and later her agent plague her dreams, and eventually both turn up dead in pitiful circumstances:
“The most terrible thing of all was woman’s face – she didn’t have one …”
Gideon of course scoffs (well, who wouldn’t?), worried that publishing such a story would damage the reputation of his favourite movie star – she feels rebuffed and so the interview session is short-lived. He leaves with his tail between his legs, watched by the lovely Amanda – at this point the narrative point of view switches, completely turning the story on its head. This is just as well because the arch dialogue and stilted delivery was really starting to make me worry that this was going to be a pretty silly bit of faux Gothic drivel.
“I am the seventh daughter of a Romany vagabond and I can sense in my bones that I will be the next one to succumb to the curse! Even now I feel a presence whispering to me to jump off the Los Angeles bridge, urging me to take my life in the icy waters …”
But I need not have worried. Nev Fountain is a very, very clever writer and a very funny one too. The switch in narrative perspective, with characters revealed to be something very different from what we first assumed, will be familiar from the author’s previous audio productions for Big Finish, all of which have been in the Doctor Who range. I previously reviewed his two-part Companion Chronicle, Peri and the Piscon Paradox as well as his masterful fifth doctor audio starring Peter Davison, Omega and the Shakespearean extravaganza, The Kingmaker and all three stand out as the cream of the company’s output. The Eternal Actress is a smaller, less ambitious play than its predecessors, clocking in at 65 minutes while the others are more than twice the length. But it manages to pack plenty of twists and turns into a tale that not only takes its narrator’s surname from director Billy Wilder and the basic plot from his classic back-handed tribute to tinsel town, Sunset Boulevard but also, very cannily, folds in elements from Fedora (1978), the director’s own much later return to the same subject matter.
This great play should please both fans of Dark Shadows and lovers of old movie lore. While it does have a supernatural element, this is secondary to a fine and clever hommage to Film Noir, albeit one with a smart post-modern polish. Fountain is also the writer of the three Mervyn Stone mystery novels (also published by Big Finish) – for detailed reviews of these, read the reviews by Fountain’s own number one fan (…) the Puzzle Doctor over at his blog In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, which you can read here).
You can read Nev Fountain’s own blog here: http://nevfountain.wordpress.com
Availability: This release is available on CD and as an MP3 download from Big Finish – visit: www.bigfinish.com.